Clark University polar scientist Karen Frey understands that when people think of the Arctic, they typically envision “a really desolate, cold, white place.” But a new report to which she has contributed predicts a warmer, wetter, stormier, and greener Arctic than previously imagined.
Frey is a lead author of the 17th annual Arctic Report Card, released Dec. 13 by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at the American Geophysical Union in Chicago. The yearly report provides a detailed picture of how climate change is causing the once reliably frozen, snow-covered region to warm faster than any other part of the world and lists climate-driven events that have impacted the region this year, including a typhoon, smoke from wildfires, and increasing rain.
One of 147 scientists from 11 nations who contributed to this year’s report, Frey is lead author of “Arctic Ocean Primary Productivity,” a chapter she’s led each time it has been included in the Arctic Report Card, dating back to 2011. The chapter focuses on phytoplankton — microscopic marine algae in Arctic Ocean seawaters, sometimes known as “the forests of the sea.”
New to this year’s report card are a chapter on precipitation and a comprehensive chapter about how dramatic environmental changes are felt by Arctic Indigenous people, and how their communities are addressing the changes.
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Among the report’s findings:
Another key finding, detailed in Frey’s Arctic Report Card chapter, is that “much of the Arctic continued to show increased ocean phytoplankton blooms in 2022, as has occurred over the 2003-2022 satellite observation period. Summer storms in 2022 in the Bering Sea may have been responsible for higher-than-average phytoplankton blooms due to increased vertical mixing of nutrients from deeper ocean waters to the surface.”
Why should we care about these blooms? According to Frey, when the sea ice breaks up in the spring and forms again in the autumn, it impacts photosynthesis in the ocean, which in turn, impacts the entire marine food chain.
“That algae impacts what the zooplankton feed on, what the fish feed on, what the seals feed on, and what the polar bears feed on — so they’re really inextricably linked in terms of all these different components of the food web,” she said. “Climate warming’s impact on sea ice has incredibly important cascading effects on all aspects of marine ecosystems.”
Also, the photosynthesis that occurs within these algae communities is crucial. Frey noted that half of all global photosynthesis occurs in the world’s oceans, including the Arctic Ocean. “To put it another way, the oxygen in every other breath that you take comes from the oceans.”
Frey has recently been tracking the spread of poisonous algal blooms that pose a threat to sea life.
“If they’re toxic, they can be really harmful in terms of things like [paralytic] shellfish poisoning, or certain [nontoxic] species can clog the gills of salmon and other fish species,” she recently told the BBC. “It’s really important to monitor them, particularly in terms of the Indigenous communities that are heavily reliant on subsistence hunting.”
Frey, who has spent 25 years studying sea ice and regularly embarks on research trips with graduate and undergraduate students, was last in the Arctic this past summer aboard the Canadian vessel Sir Wilfrid Laurier. During the expedition, the researchers conducted scientific studies of seawater and seafloor samples recovered from numerous stations in the Bering and Chukchi seas in a sometimes grueling, sleepless schedule of both deck and lab work.
According to Frey, Arctic sea ice is dramatically shrinking because of climate change.
“Every September, you have the seasonal minimum of Arctic sea ice, and what’s left behind is called perennial Arctic sea ice, or sea ice that survives the summer season,” she said. “Every single year, September becomes a marker for how this perennial multiyear sea ice has changed over time.
“There are some predictions that perhaps by the year 2040, the September seasonal ice minimum will essentially decline to nothing, so there will be an extinction of summer Arctic sea ice in the not-too-distant future.”
The Arctic Report Card is an annual compilation of original, peer-reviewed environmental observations and analyses of a region undergoing rapid and dramatic alterations to weather, climate, oceanic, and land conditions.
“With this important new chapter and other timely additions, the 2022 Arctic Report Card underscores the urgency to confront the climate crisis by reducing greenhouse gasses and taking steps to be more resilient,” said NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad, Ph.D. “The report provides observations and analysis to help build a climate-ready nation in a region on the front lines of climate change.”
Clark’s Graduate School of Geography is hosting a special celebration of its 100 years as a transformational force in geography, April 13–15. Learn more about the centennial event and how to register for the luncheon, dinner, and receptions.