By Brian Vastag
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 6:39 PM
Climate researchers have long warned that the Arctic is particularly vulnerable to global warming. The dramatic shrinking of sea ice in areas circling the North Pole highlights those concerns.
A new report finds that the disappearing ice has apparently triggered another dramatic event - one that could disrupt the entire ecosystem of fish, shellfish, birds, and marine mammals that thrive in the harsh northern climate.
Each summer, an explosion of tiny ocean-dwelling plants and algae, called phytoplankton, anchors the Arctic food web.
But these vital annual blooms of phytoplankton are now peaking up to 50 days earlier than they did just 14 years ago, satellite data show.
"The ice is retreating earlier in the Arctic, and the phytoplankton blooms are also starting earlier," said study leader Mati Kahru, an oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.
Drawing on observations from three American and European climate satellites, Kahru and his international team studied worldwide phytoplankton blooms from 1997 through 2009. The satellites can spot the blooms by their color, as billions of the tiny organisms turn huge swaths of the ocean green for a week or two.
The blooms peaked earlier and earlier in 11 percent of the areas where Kahru's team was able to collect good data. Kahru said the impacted zones cover roughly 1 million square kilometers, including portions of the Foxe Basin and the Baffin Sea, which belong to Canada, and the Kara Sea north of Russia.
In the late 1990s, phytoplankton blooms in these areas hit their peak in September, only after a summer's worth of relative warmth had melted the edges of the polar ice cap. But by 2009 the blooms' peaks had shifted to early July.
"The trend is obvious and significant, and in my mind there is no doubt it is related to the retreat of the ice," said Kahru, who published the work in the journal Global Change Biology.
"A 50-day shift is a big shift," said plankton researcher Michael Behrenfeld of Oregon State University, who was not involved in the study. "As the planet warms, the threat is that these changes seen closer to land may spread across the entire Arctic."
Ecologists worry that the early blooms could unravel the region's ecosystem and "lead to crashes of the food web," said William Sydeman, who studies ocean ecology as president of the nonprofit Farallon Institute in Petaluma, Calif.
When phytoplankton explode in population during the blooms, tiny animals called zooplankton - which include krill and other small crustaceans - likewise expand in number as they harvest the phytoplankton. Fish, shellfish and whales feed on the zooplankton, seabirds snatch the fish and shellfish, and polar bears and seals subsist on those species.
The timing of this sequential harvest is programmed into the reproductive cycles of many animals, Sydeman said. "It's all about when food is available." So the disrupted phytoplankton blooms could "have cascading effects up the food web all the way to marine mammals."
But the Arctic food web is poorly studied, and so any resulting decline in fish, seabirds and mammals will be difficult to spot.
As the Arctic Ocean north becomes less and less icy, commercial fisherman have begun eyeing these vast, untapped waters as an adjunct to the famously rich fishing grounds of the subarctic Bering Sea, west of Alaska.
But in 2009, the U.S. body overseeing fishing in the region, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, banned commercial fishing in the Arctic Ocean, citing a lack of knowledge about how many - or even what kind - of fish live there.
"There are no catches authorized because we don't know enough about the fish populations there to set a quota," said Julie Speegle, a spokeswoman for the Alaska office of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Last week, that service reported results from the first fish survey in 30 years of the Beaufort Sea, an arm of the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska. The survey found sizeable populations of several commercially valuable species, including pollock, Pacific cod, and snow crab.
How these populations will respond to the ever-earlier plankton blooms is a big unknown, Sydeman said. But other research has shown that northern Atlantic cod populations crash when plankton blooms in that region shift in time.
Last week, the National Snow and Ice Data Center, in Boulder, Colo., reported that in February, Arctic sea ice covered a smaller area than ever seen in that month, tying with February 2005 as the most ice-free February since satellites began tracking Arctic ice in 1979. The annual average Arctic sea ice coverage has decreased about 12 percent since then, a trend that appears to be accelerating, said Walt Meier, a research scientist at the center. Summer ice coverage has declined even more dramatically, he said, with the Arctic losing almost a third of its late-summer ice over the past 30 years.