Bering Sea winter ice shrank to its lowest level in 5,500 years in 2018

Five millennia of climate shifts impacting the ice is recorded in peat from an Arctic island

Bering Sea ice

The Bering Sea (shown) may be ice-free year-round by the end of the century. A new study finds that increasing climate-altering CO2 can lead to reduced ice in the winter as well as the summer.

Jim Williams/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Sea ice in the Bering Sea, on the southern margin of the Arctic Ocean, dwindled to its smallest wintertime expanse in 5,500 years in 2018, new data show.  

Summertime sea ice loss due to climate change has captured headlines, but winter ice in the region has also shown recent signs of decline. In both February 2018 and February 2019, the extent was 60 to 70 percent lower than the average February-to-May extent from 1979 to 2017. However, researchers thought that those declines might be linked to unusual short-term atmospheric conditions.

Instead, the new study suggests that human-caused climate change is also helping to shrink Bering Sea ice during the winter. The findings, by geologist Miriam Jones of the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Va., and colleagues, were published September 2 in Science Advances.

Jones and her team collected cores of peat from St. Matthew Island, a remote spot in the Bering Sea west of Alaska. Within the peat — packed remains of partially decomposed plants — oxygen-bearing organic compounds called cellulose contain clues to the climate history of the region.

Rain falling on the island contains two different isotopes, or forms, of oxygen: oxygen-18 and oxygen-16. The relative values of those isotopes in the rainfall change depending on atmospheric conditions, and as plants take up that oxygen from the air, they record those changes. By analyzing the amounts of those isotopes in the cellulose over time, the team was able to track changes in precipitation and atmospheric circulation going back 5,500 years.

Then, the team established the link between this oxygen isotope record and sea ice extent.

Bering Sea ice is known to be directly tied to shifts in wind direction. So the researchers created a computer simulation that included climate conditions from 1979 to 2018, oxygen isotope values from cellulose during that time and satellite observations of sea ice. When winds were strongly blowing from the south, and there was less sea ice, the relative amount of oxygen-18 increased. When winds from the north dominated, and there was more sea ice, there was less oxygen-18 in the cellulose.

Next, the researchers used the oxygen isotopes in the peat to track the waxing and waning of the region’s sea ice over thousands of years. Most of the area’s rainfall occurs in winter and spring, so those oxygen isotopes are indicative of conditions between February and May, rather than summer. The peat cellulose oxygen-18 values recorded in winter 2018 were the highest, and the sea ice extent the smallest, in the last 5,500 years, the team found. 

In preindustrial times, the researchers found, wintertime sea ice was gradually decreasing, largely due to natural changes in incoming sunlight during winter, related to changes in Earth’s orbit. But the team also found that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, compiled from previous studies, were closely correlated to ice volume. As CO2 levels began to climb past 280 parts per million following the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1700s, the oxygen-18 values also began to rise, with corresponding sea ice decreases.

How exactly increasing CO2 might be linked to winter ice volume is less clear. The losses may be directly due to greenhouse gas warming. Or more indirectly, changes to atmospheric circulation patterns due to increasing CO2 might also lead to those losses.

The study demonstrates just how exceptional the recent winter sea ice losses in the region are, says Benjamin Gaglioti, an environmental scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who was not involved in the study. “Although there [was] an overall trend towards less sea ice prior to anthropogenic warming, recent increases in human-derived greenhouse gases have enhanced this trend,” he says. And that is not good news for the region’s denizens.

“Winter sea ice in this region serves as a critical habitat for unique marine wildlife like Pacific walrus and kittiwakes,” Gaglioti says. The ice also helps dampen the impacts of intense winter storms and flooding on coastal communities, he adds.

Climate change due to CO2 and other climate-warming gases has already taken a visible toll on summertime sea ice in and around the Arctic; within 10 to 15 years, the region may be ice-free during the warmer months. Arctic sea ice in September 2019 tied for second-lowest on record with 2007 and 2016; first place still goes to 2012 (SN: 9/25/19). The loss of that ice is not just a bellwether for climate change in the Arctic, but is also speeding up the rate of warming in the region, a process called Arctic amplification (SN: 7/1/20). And the missing summer ice is also triggering a cascade of changes through Arctic ecosystems, including within the Bering Sea (SN: 3/14/19).

But the new study suggests that winter sea ice losses might lag behind CO2 changes by decades, perhaps even a century — and that could mean a year-round ice-free Bering Sea by 2100.

Carolyn Gramling is the earth & climate writer. She has bachelor’s degrees in geology and European history and a Ph.D. in marine geochemistry from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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