Icy rain, wet snow and brief bursts of sunshine came and went as we searched for signs of polar bears, walruses and beluga whales along the southeast shore of Devon Island in Canada’s high Arctic. But none of us had considered watching out for obstacles submerged beneath the silty water until we heard – and felt – something slicing through our inflatable. As the 4 C (39 F) water began to fill the boat faster than we could bail it out with our one bucket, I instinctively suggested that we get to shore as soon as possible. But the first mate and science officer on this Arctic expedition had another idea. “Keep bailing,” she said as she steered toward our support vessel, now out of sight and more than 2km (1.2 miles) away.
Looking out at the barren, glacier-covered shoreline along this, the largest uninhabited island in the world, I saw her wisdom. Even with a radio on hand, no one was going to get to us anytime soon if we found ourselves marooned on shore with no way of getting back to the sailboat. So I emptied a toolbox and started bailing.
It was mid-August in 2012. On this third leg of a five-week journey from Greenland to Ellesmere, Coburg, Devon and Baffin islands in Canada, there were seven of us – Canadian and French scientists and a New Zealand sailor. Together, we were trying to get a sense of how the Arctic Ocean was responding to climate change, and how that change was affecting marine life so well adapted to extremely low temperatures, extensive sea ice cover, violent seasonal changes and punishing variations in salinity driven by ocean currents, fresh water from Arctic rivers, receding glaciers and melting sea ice.
Early as we were into the journey, it was evident to us, and to most scientists conducting research in the Arctic, that there had not been a summer like this one, not even in 2007, when sea ice had retreated to its previous low. News of the repercussions came from many fronts. In northern Greenland, where a sheet of ice at least twice the size of Manhattan had broken away from the Petermann Glacier for the second time in two years, Inuit hunters were killing their dogs because the lack of sea ice limited the hunters’ ability to catch the seals needed to feed them. And the rapidly melting ice was opening up new pathways for southern animals to migrate into Arctic waters. We learned of southern fish far out of their range and of killer whales – ice-averse animals rarely seen in the Arctic – chasing narwhals and beluga whales off the north coast of Baffin Island. In one case, an Inuit hunter played a short, but heart-stopping, game of tug of war with an orca that made off with a freshly killed narwhal he had harpooned and was hauling in.
Now, four years on, mounting evidence makes it clear that the Arctic Ocean, once a slumbering giant covered in thick ice for most of the year, is waking up from its hypothermic state and flexing its newfound energy. It seems clear that this ocean, the world’s smallest and shallowest, is becoming home for wildlife from the south. What remains to be seen is whether this will benefit the Inuit, whose traditional food sources are being battered by climate change, or trigger an international race to exploit emerging resources in the high seas of the central Arctic Ocean. Only 8 percent of the region is bound by any international rules under the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, leaving the remaining 92 percent open to unregulated commercial fishing.
Because of ice, the weather and the absence of ports, roads and runways in the Arctic, few scientific insights that are made in the region come easy. That’s why most research expeditions such as ours happen in spring and summer, when the weather tends to be relatively benign. There are exceptions, however, as we found out when the tail end of a massive cyclone forced us to take refuge in the lee of the Nirjutiqavvik National Wildlife Area on Coburg Island, a mountainous high Arctic oasis that is home to some 385,000 nesting seabirds in summer. The chicks of the fulmars, black-legged kittiwakes and black guillemots had fledged, so the birds had all dispersed. There was no sign of life anywhere, not even the tracks of polar bears the biologist on board had expected to see imprinted in the sandy shoreline. With big leaden clouds racing over the craggy cliffs above us, the only thing missing was the battle cry from Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”
What made this cyclone stand out was its force and longevity. It had formed off the coast of Siberia during the first week of August before moving into Canada’s central Arctic. Unbeknownst to us at the time, climate scientists from around the world were monitoring it with fascination as its powerful winds churned and broke up sea ice cover that was already heading to a record low. Not only did this turn out to be the most powerful Arctic summer storm on record, it proved to be as intense as all but a handful of the worst winter storms documented in this part of the world.
The Great Arctic Cyclone of 2012 was yet another sign of a new Arctic unfolding. Winds generated by storms such as this are expected to occur more frequently as the region heats up. That’s significant because strong winds accelerate the transfer of heat and moisture between the atmosphere and the ocean or the surface of the sea ice. Strong winds also break up sea ice into smaller floes that melt more quickly. That, in turn, disrupts sea ice and ice-edge ecosystems that favor beluga whales, narwhals and Arctic cod.
Arctic cod are key to understanding how climate change is affecting life in the Arctic Ocean. They are small fish that tend to grow to about 30cm (1ft) in length, sometimes longer, yet they are an important source of food to narwhals, belugas, ringed seals, seabirds and larger fish such as Arctic char and Greenlandic halibut. And it’s estimated that each year in Lancaster Sound – at the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage – marine mammals consume 125,000 tonnes (140,000 tons) of Arctic cod, and seabirds consume an additional 23,000 tonnes (25,000 tons).
With sea ice retreating, Arctic cod, which favor temperatures below 4 C (39 F), have been migrating even farther north. In their absence, new fish are filling their niches: Capelin have supplanted Arctic cod as the main forage fish for seabirds in Hudson Bay; in the Barents Sea, the range of sub-Arctic fish, such as beaked redfish and long rough dab, is shifting northward; and Pacific sand lance, a major food source for many commercially important marine species, now have a foothold in the Beaufort Sea. There have been so many mackerel migrating into Greenlandic waters that the government launched a successful experimental commercial fishery in 2013.
Up until the time of our 2012 expedition, there was little evidence that southern fish were migrating north into the central Arctic Ocean or into the archipelago of the eastern Arctic of Canada where the ice lingers longer, or in some cases all year long.
But that thinking began to change right around the time our small expedition landed in the community of Arctic Bay on northern Baffin Island, a few days after we managed to get our badly damaged inflatable boat back to the sailboat. Narwhal hunters were still grumbling about the floe edge that failed to materialize during that very warm spring. Without that safe platform of ice from which to harpoon and shoot the animals as they passed through the narrow leads in the ice, hunters harvested only half of their annual quota of 130 whales.
As tough as times are in the Arctic, the Inuit were more than generous wherever we went, offering fresh char and narwhal blubber to replace the canned salmon and tuna we often ate. But in Arctic Bay, fishermen such as Sakiasie Qaunaq had another fish to barter. “I don’t know what they are,” he said, showing me a frozen fish that looked like a Pacific salmon of some sort. “But they are not the fish we catch here.”
Having been on my own on that last day of our stay, I didn’t get a chance to show my colleagues what I had seen. It seemed so improbable for a salmon to come that far that I didn’t think to pursue it. Back home, however, the mystery begged for an answer so I got in touch with Karen Dunmall, a University of Manitoba biologist who has been tracking the movement of all five species of salmon into Canada’s western Arctic in recent years. With the help of indigenous fishermen who report their unusual catches on a Facebook page, or send their frozen samples to her by mail, Dunmall has found that Pacific salmon are migrating thousands of miles into the Beaufort Sea and up the Mackenzie River system into Great Bear Lake and the Liard and Slave River systems.
Astonishing a migration as that is, neither Dunmall nor Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) scientist Jim Reist could envision Pacific salmon migrating into the eastern Arctic of Canada. Reist, however, had a change of heart when he and four other experts got a chance to examine photos of the frozen fish from Arctic Bay. They did so around the same time researchers from the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources reported catching a pink salmon, the first ever identified in eastern Greenlandic waters. The experts realized the fish from Arctic Bay was likely a salmon, either sockeye or chum. But they couldn’t say with absolute certainty.
How a Pacific salmon found itself so far from its natal habitat is a mystery. But working with oceanographer Eddy Carmack, Reist and Dunmall hypothesize that the Arctic meltdown of 2012 probably had something to do with it. The salmon caught in eastern Greenland, they say, likely started its journey in Siberia’s Lena River before being entrained in the Trans Polar Drift, a current that carries water from the North Pacific across the central Arctic into Greenland. Presumably it fed on prey such as Arctic cod along the receding ice before it found itself in uncharted territory.
The migration of fish and other harvestable marine species into the Arctic could be a boon to Inuit and other indigenous northerners who are struggling with the recent collapse in caribou populations, and the declines of seals, seabirds and other species. While Greenlanders are capitalizing on the migration of fish such as mackerel into the Arctic, the Inuit of Nunavut continue to exploit fish stocks that are poised to move northward. Nunavut’s harvest of turbot on the southern coast of Baffin Island has more than doubled in value from 2004 to 2014. And in 2013–14, Nunavut’s offshore and inland fisheries created 370 seasonal jobs and had a total market value of C$86 million (about $66 million).
Looking hopefully at the possibility of fish moving into more northerly Arctic waters, the government of Nunavut recently commissioned the Centre for Fisheries Ecosystems Research at Newfoundland’s Memorial University to spend six years researching the potential for commercial fisheries. A similar study in the Beaufort Sea led by DFO’s Reist is much more advanced. In a survey that was conducted between 2011 and 2015, Reist and his team found 16 species of fish that may be new to the region.
While no one believes that the central Arctic Ocean is ripe for salmon, Greenlandic halibut and bluefin tuna, Scott Highleyman, director of international Arctic programs for the Pew Charitable Trusts, believes the future may be more fish-friendly than most people think. The central Arctic Ocean has both shallow continental shelves and deep basins that are favorable for fish, he says, and because there are snow crabs and Arctic cod not far away in the Chukchi Sea, it wouldn’t require a long migration for those species to move in.
Highleyman is not alone in suggesting that this may already be happening; satellite data shows the movement of polar bears into the central Arctic Ocean in recent years. “Where there are polar bears, there are seals,” he says. “And where there are seals and beluga whales, there are fish such as Arctic cod in limited numbers.”
Positive as this potential influx of fish into the Arctic could be, it may prove to be disastrous if the world’s fishing nations try to exploit a potentially emerging resource in a region with murky political boundaries. Nearly all of the central Arctic Ocean, for instance, lies outside the exclusive economic zones of the five coastal Arctic nations: Canada, United States, Russia, Norway and Denmark (by its connection to Greenland). Aside from the 8 percent of international waters governed by the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, the central Arctic Ocean is the collective responsibility of all humanity.
Recognizing the possibility that the central Arctic Ocean may some day be home to a commercial fishery that could eventually be exploited by distant fishing fleets, more than 2,000 scientists from 67 countries put their names on an open letter in 2012, urging Arctic leaders to develop an international fisheries agreement that would protect it. Inuit leaders echoed those sentiments two years later in the Kitigaaryuit Declaration, which supports a moratorium on fishing in the central Arctic until fish stocks have been adequately assessed and a sustainable management regime is in place that fully engages and involves Inuit.
The idea of a moratorium on fishing has been discussed at high levels for nearly a decade. But it failed to get serious traction until January 2015, when 40 Arctic experts from the United States, Canada, Russia, China, Iceland, Denmark and Greenland traveled to Tongji University in Shanghai to attend the first Roundtable on Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Issues.
At the outset, no one at the roundtable disputed the wisdom of establishing a precautionary policy. But one senior government bureaucrat from Canada wondered aloud why there was a sense of urgency about unregulated fishing when no one has any clear idea whether there are fish in the central Arctic Ocean, or whether there will ever be enough fish for a viable commercial fishery, even if the region is seasonally ice free. Given the absence of reliable data, it would be difficult, the official noted, to convince the decision-makers he advises back home to take urgent action on a hypothetical situation.
David Benton, a commissioner on the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, quickly interjected with an eye-opener of a story describing how a pollock fishery that the United States was unaware of in the 1980s was being overexploited in a high seas area bordered by Alaska and Russia. A hastily negotiated agreement with Russia in 1993, which was signed by China, Japan, South Korea and Poland, was remarkable for the fact that it produced the intended results so quickly. But it came too late. According to Benton, the pollock fishery had collapsed, and has not recovered since.
The urgency palpable at the Shanghai meeting reinvigorated high-level discussions that had already been underway. Late in the summer of 2015, for instance, the five coastal Arctic nations signed a non-binding declaration prohibiting commercial fishing in the area until science-based international mechanisms, such as a regional fishing management organization, are in place to manage, conserve and protect stocks with rules, regulations and sanctions.
The big challenge now is finding the best way to move forward. Last December, these five countries, plus China, Japan, South Korea, Iceland and the European Union, met for the first time to discuss a U.S. proposal for an international fisheries agreement, this one being binding. In March 2016, President Barack Obama and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau pledged to work together to support this agreement. And Norway is planning to host a follow-up scientific meeting for October 2016.
Whether anything meaningful will come from these meetings remains to be seen. What is clear is that the decades-long trend of extreme Arctic warming hit new heights in the winter of 2015–16, when a mass of exceptionally warm air was pushed into the Arctic by storm-driven systems in the south, raising temperatures by at least 30 C (54 F) in some places. At the North Pole, where it would normally be -30 C to -40 C (-22 F to -40 F) in December, the temperature hovered around the freezing mark. In Svalbard, where polar bears were feeding on white-beaked dolphins for the first time ever the year before, there was almost no ice around to support activity in the most important denning areas.
Off the coast of Alaska, more than 8,000 murres starved to death, likely because their prey – capelin, herring and juvenile pollock – had either dispersed, swum to deeper depths or disappeared after a massive “blob” of warm water settled into the North Pacific. If the storms that struck the region around that time played a role in the death of the birds, they probably put the birds out of their misery. There was no food in their stomachs when they washed up on shore.
It’s not just wildlife that is being affected. As sea ice becomes an increasingly unreliable hunting platform and soaring temperatures alter the life cycles and abundance of prey species, some indigenous communities face worsening food shortages and poor nutrition. In 2015, the U.S. government had to ship in frozen fish to Alaskan communities whose walrus hunts had failed. In northern Greenland, hunters continue to kill their dogs because of their inability to hunt for seals on the sea ice. In Canada, several recent studies suggest that one-third to two-thirds of households in the vast Arctic territory of Nunavut lack access to safe and healthy food.
Like most observers, I failed to appreciate how quickly a new Arctic was emerging when I made that trip in the summer of 2012. It was clear that the Arctic that once favored Arctic cod, seals, beluga whales, narwhals and walruses was being replaced by a new Arctic that may be more suitable for southern fish such as mackerel, tuna, Pacific salmon and other fish that may or may not go a long way toward establishing food security in the Arctic.
Looking back on it now, it should have been more obvious. All the evidence was there, from the record-breaking cyclone to salmon showing up where they’ve never been seen before. And that was only what we saw and heard on our short journey.
One memorable moment haunts me to this day. Sailing into Pond Inlet along the north coast of Baffin Island during the first week of September, we should have been presented with freezing temperatures and snowfall. What we got was 10 C (50 F) temperatures, rain and green grass and sedges lining the shoreline. It looked like the north end of northern Scotland on a late summer day, not a place for the polar bears that were nowhere to be seen during our six-week journey.
Walking the muddy streets of Pond Inlet, I stopped to talk to one Inuit elder about the weather, the killer whales chasing narwhals and the ice cover in the region that had retreated to levels that no living Inuit had ever seen before. After pausing for a moment to think, the elder simply shrugged and said, “Our world is changing much too fast for me.” It was as if he was in awe of how the Arctic he was most familiar with was morphing into something completely new.
The end of an Arctic that has existed for all of modern times is now upon us. What’s needed now is a scientific roadmap that decision-makers can use to properly manage these emerging resources of the future.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Arctic Deeply.
This article was originally published in Hakai Magazine and is reprinted here with permission.