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Alaska’s Warming Waters Spell Trouble for Residents and Wildlife

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Alaska’s Warming Waters Spell Trouble for Residents and Wildlife
A vehicle on the melting permafrost tundra on the edge of the Bering Sea at the town of Quinhagak in Alaska on April 12, 2019. MARK RALSTON / AFP / Getty Images

An unseasonably warm May followed by record-breaking June temperatures melted Alaskan ice far earlier than normal this year, alarming residents and scientists alike, the Associated Press reports.


Sea surface temperatures in the Chukchi and North Bering seas are nearly 10 degrees Fahrenheit above the 1981-2010 average, reaching into the lower 60s. The warm ocean temperature has profound effects on the climate system, food web, communities and commerce, said Rick Thoman, a climatologist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment & Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"The northern Bering & southern Chukchi Seas are baking," Thoman wrote in a tweet.

Kotzebue and Norton sounds in northwest Alaska were warmest but the heat extended far out into the ocean.

The last five years have produced the warmest sea-surface temperatures on record in the region, contributing to record low sea ice levels.

"The waters are warmer than last year at this time, and that was an extremely warm year," Thoman said, as the Anchorage Daily News reported.

The warming temperatures are part of an emerging crisis for communities along the state's western and northern coastlines, Thoman told CNN. Birds and marine animals are showing up dead and sea temperatures are warm enough to support algal blooms, which can make the waters toxic to wildlife.

This has dire consequences for towns that depend on fishing for their economy and their sustenance.

"Much of what the people eat there over the course of the year comes from food they harvest themselves," said climatologist Brian Brettschneider at the International Arctic Research Center, as CNN reported. "If people can't get out on the ice to hunt seals or whales, that affects their food security. It is a human crisis of survivability."

Last month, a group of hunters traveled over 50 miles by boat to find bearded seals resting on the ice. The ice, and the seals that accompany it, should have been just outside their village. But the ice had receded far to the north, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

"We didn't know if we'd have our winter food," said Janet Mitchell, one of the hunters from the village of Kivalina in Northwest Alaska. "That was scary."

Not expecting that they would need to travel so far for their winter stockpiles, the hunters ran out of gas while bringing home eight seals and a walrus. They had to call other residents for an emergency fuel delivery, Mitchell said.

Ice cover around Alaska usually lasts until June. This year, it disappeared in March. The warming is undoubtedly a sign of a warming planet and part of the trend of increasing global temperatures, Brettschneider said.

"This event is unquestionably a reflection of our changing climate," he said, as CNN reported. "The sea temperatures and sea ice deficits have not happened before as a random event. The mathematics just do not work out."

"What is happening in coastal Alaska is what is coming in one sense for everybody else," he said to CNN. "Most people are feeling the effects of climate change even if they don't know it. Changes are happening, and changes will be magnified."

Kevin Maillefer / Unsplash

By Lynne Peeples

Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.

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