By M. E. Schuman
We have all seen pictures of Polar Bear walking on the ice but have you ever wondered what lives below the ice?
Deep water corals thrive in the icy waters from the Arctic of North America to the fjords of Norway. With the introduction of sophisticated underwater technology scientists have discovered a productive underworld of life never seen before.
While researching and writing a series of wildlife narratives for a project on the North Slope, I learned that there was ‘coral’ in the Arctic Ocean. I was so fascinated by this I begged the project manager, half-jokingly, for the opportunity to witness this coral below the ice. He looked at me as he chuckled and he then shook his head “no”.
As a volunteer rescue diver on a local dive team, we were diving in Prince William Sound near Whittier Alaska. It was there that I saw some of the largest and most brilliant star fish and sea cucumbers I have ever seen. It is here you can dive with migrating schools of salmon, see Giant pacific octopus, plumose anemones and colorful sponges.
Although the Arctic Ocean is the smallest of oceans, spanning a little over 6 million square miles, it is now receiving unprecedented international attention. Encompassing the Arctic, the Arctic Ocean flows beneath the ice throughout most of the year, until now. As temperatures have increased in the Northern Latitudes, the Arctic Ocean is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth. As an Alaskan of nearly 40 years the assault is overwhelming. The video below explains better than I can:
Much is still unknown about the Arctic's marine food web. The foundation of the Arctic food chain is Plankton, a group that consists of tiny organisms like algae and bacteria. They convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into organic matter that in turn feeds everything from small fish to whales. Growing inside the tunnels naturally carved into sea ice, are plankton-eating zooplankton. Even farther below are bottom-dwelling organisms like sea anemones, corals, and sponges.
Whales and seals are a primary food source for polar bear and indigenous people living in the Arctic. But commercial fishing has been banned in much of the Arctic Ocean. Three whales make their home in the Arctic and Subarctic waters year-round: the bowhead, the narwal, and the beluga.
To some indigenous Arctic people, such as the Inupiaq of Barrow, Alaska, the bowhead, a baleen whale, has been a major food source, with the whale hunt a centerpiece of their culture for at least 2,000 years. Commercial hunting, which took place mainly between the mid-1800s and the early 1900s in the western Arctic, has been banned since 1946, but the International Whaling Commission allows subsistence hunters to take a specified number of bowheads each year. Narwahls, with the unique tusk, and the beluga are related. The beluga, the ‘ white whale’ numbers have declined over the years. Name your poison as to why.
The White Whale of the Arctic, the Beluga
The Tusked Whale of the Arctic, the Narwahl.
The Baleen Whale of the Arctic, the Bowhead
In 2018 the U.S. and nine other countries recognized that loss of ice is creating new access to fishing. In response, there is a moratorium that bans fishing until scientists assess whether the Arctic Ocean fisheries can be sustainably managed.
Methane gas seeping from the ocean floor.
The change of weather patterns around the world are impacted by the loss of sea ice. The jet stream called the polar vortex that encircles the Arctic is propelled forward by the difference between cold temperatures to the north and warm temperatures to the south, sending Arctic air southward. Storms in the lower 48 have increased in intensity and frequency as a result.
The Arctic was once covered with a formidable mass of ice that posed a steep challenge to shipping. Now, as the Arctic Ocean warms and opens up, the race to control it is creating what some are calling a second Cold War. This is astonishing to me. We are thinking of ways to utilize and take advantage of these resources and yet, our global leaders are playing Russian roulette with the future of our planet for political gain rather than solutions to our climate change crisis.
If we are to make a successful transition from our current standards of living to a zero emissions planet, climate response efforts must be equitably distributed and inclusive. Especially incorporating traditional ecological knowledge of indigenous people. But we are running out of time. Solutions need to happen now.
More than 1 billion people depend on fish for their basic protein; 350 million jobs worldwide depend on the marine sector; 25% of marine mammals face some threat of extinction; and less than 3% of the ocean is designated as a marine protected area.
To assess our ocean’s health, Conservation International developed the Ocean Health Index as a a decision-making tool and framework for conserving the human-ocean ecosystem. The Index is the first assessment tool that scientifically measures key elements from all dimensions of the ocean’s health to guide decision makers toward the sustainable use of our oceans:
Managing our oceans is not an option if there is to be a future. The fragile ocean system is threatened by the growing needs of people. Through informed management, we can regain an ocean that provides the resources and services we need now and in the future. Because without a healthy ocean, there will be no life to sustain.