Warm Bering Sea last fall shocked longtime researcher

Johanna Eurich reports from the Alaska Marine Science Symposium 1/23-26/2017

The north winds are blowing and its cold… just the right thing to cool the Northern Bering Sea .

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“These strong, frigid winds out of the north, we could push ice quickly over the shelf.”

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Phyllis Stabeno with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory is cheering the north wind on because the last few years of warm conditions have destroyed her theory that the northern Bering Sea would remain cold even after the southern part had warmed.

She came up with that idea about 6 years ago, when it was still fairly cold…but then it got warm. A few years ago, a huge area of warm water known as the blob showed up in the Gulf of Alaska and a bit of that warm water even leaked into the southern Bering Sea, creating hot spots last year. Several years of warm summers combined with the lack of good consistent sea ice meant the water in the northern Bering Sea never got cold the way it was supposed to. Normally it cools in the fall and winds mix it up making the shallow sea all one temperature…just in time for the ice to arrive.

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“And as the ice goes further and further south the whole shelf cools like that so you have just a nice big freezer. And it stays like that until the ice disappears. But the bottom of the Northern Bering Sea can remain below minus one degree Celsius for the whole year until you begin to mix again in the fall.”

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But that’s not what happened. The Northern Bering Sea never got that cold, and one of the casualties was Stabeno’s theory. She’s not sure it’s completely dead, but she admits next year is supposed to be warm again. Her hopes lie with the ice. The Northern Bering is so shallow that a good ice year can erase the heat of summer and set up the ecosystem to feed the fish and marine mammals people depend on. That’s why she’s rooting for the North Wind.

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