A new report on the Arctic warns that environmental pressures on marine species are putting Arctic ecosystems “on the verge of a shift.”
The loss of Arctic sea ice, rising temperatures and increased marine traffic are all to blame, as many Arctic species are losing food resources and seeing their habitat ranges either reduced or shifting northwards.
“Arctic marine species and ecosystems are undergoing pressure from cumulative changes in their physical, chemical and biological environment,” reads the report from the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF), a biodiversity working group of the Arctic Council. “It is hard to determine where and when these “tipping points” exist because the Arctic marine environment experiences a variety of stressors and subsequent reactions that can interact in complex and surprising ways,” says the report.
A collaborative effort from over 60 international experts, the report assessed trends across six ecosystem components: marine mammals, seabirds, marine fishes, benthos (organisms of the sea bottom), plankton and sea ice biota.
Among its findings, the researchers determined that reduced ice cover has led to poorer body condition for Barents Sea harp seals, declines in ivory gull populations and increased polar bear predation on two species of birds, ground-nesting common eiders and cliff-nesting murres.
Arctic species are also facing more frequent outbreaks of contagious diseases, such as bird cholera in the northern Bering Sea and Arctic Archipelago and the unusual mass death of seals and walruses that occurred in Alaska in 2011. As well, as ocean temperatures rise, species such as the Atlantic cod and killer whale, typically more southernly species, are expanding their range northward into Arctic waters.
Arctic ecosystems “on the verge”
The report’s authors say that while some environmental changes occur gradually, large and sudden ecosystem-wide shifts can also occur. “We are used to changes in the Arctic, those have been building for quite some time now,” says Kit Kovacs, a marine mammalogist with the Norwegian Polar Institute and contributor to the report, in a press release. “What we are not used to is the increasing rate of change -scientific modelling is barely keeping pace with the changes that are being observed in parts of the region.”
Overall, the report concludes that internationally coordinated plans for monitoring Arctic ecosystems need to be implemented.
The Arctic Council is the main intergovernmental forum for cooperation among Arctic states (of which there are eight, including Canada and the United States), Indigenous communities and other residents of the Arctic.
The Arctic Council held a ministerial gathering in Fairbanks, Alaska, on May 11, amid concerns over member country, the United States, and its as-yet-unspecified position on climate change. As reported in the Nunatsiq News, Finland’s foreign minister, Timo Soini, urged cooperation between member nations. “Everyone recognizes global warming is the main engine of change in the Arctic,” said Soini, who called the Paris Agreement the “cornerstone of international efforts to combat climate change.”
Some of those fears were alleviated, however, when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who opened the ministerial meeting, signed the Arctic Council’s Fairbanks Declaration 2017, which focuses on the need for “global action” on reducing greenhouse gases and supports the Paris accord on climate change.
According to CBC News, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland, was happy with the US’ commitment to the declaration and had praise for Tillerson, himself, who Freeland said played a “strong and positive role in holding the chair in all eight Arctic countries in getting to a public declaration that we were all able to sign.”