THAW: Into the Deep, Dark Arctic

We tend to focus on the losers in the Arctic ecosystem, and there's going to be a lot of them. But as the ice recedes new light is flooding into the ecosystem. The spooky Polar Night is the right time to study this phenomenon because this period was long assumed to be ecologically dormant. But it turns out Arctic birds can actively hunt in the dark; that the copepods migrate using the moonlight, and other zooplankton can detect tiny variations in light—perhaps even faint rays from stars.

As the Arctic unravels: seals, polar bears and walruses may lose most of their summer habitat as the ice vanishes. Bottom feeders like sponges and bivalves are losing the meals they usually gain from plankton growing beneath the ice before it falls to the deep. But some species are finding hope in the dark: all that algae has allowed bowhead whales, for example, to thrive lately.

But the vanishing ice should matter to viewers far from this desolate spot of ocean. The Arctic has warmed by almost 5°F, more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet. That imbalance of warming is altering the structure of Earth’s atmosphere.
As for the ice, a decade ago it was about three times thicker. That weak cover on the Arctic means more evaporation than ever before, making a wetter, thicker polar atmosphere.

That may be altering the global jet stream, which pushes weather systems from west to east. This high altitude river of air is getting wavier, and it’s less effective at moving weather along. Slower weather means more extreme weather. So there’s a big debate: prominent scientists think the weakened jet stream is creating longer lasting heat waves, droughts, and snowstorms.

Once, in these black waters, the ice trapped whaling ships for months. Now ships steam through open seas just a day’s journey from the North Pole. Among Arctic regions, the Barents Sea has changed the most. Last year winter temperatures rose more than 15°F higher than usual.

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