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Shrinking Seasonal Ice in the Bering Sea Threatens Local Livelihoods

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Joseph John Jr. washes freshly caught salmon with his son, Jeremiah John in Newtok, Alaska. Newtok has a population of approximately of 375 ethnically Yupik people. As global temperatures rise the village is being threatened by the melting of permafrost, greater ice and snow melt and larger storms from the Bering Sea. 

After four years in a row of record low winter sea ice extent, the Arctic received a bit of a reprieve this year. This winter’s maximum—the day when sea ice extent is greatest—was likely reached on March 13th, when Arctic sea ice covered 14.777 million square kilometers (5.7 million square miles). Though the National Snow and Ice Data Center has not yet officially declared the maximum, 2019 Arctic sea ice extent still remains among the top ten lowest on record for March, and well below the 1981-2010 average maximum extent of 15.64 million square kilometers (6.03 million square miles). Cold weather over much of the Arctic this winter preserved whatever ice had managed to form.

The exception was in the Bering Sea. Spanning 2 million square kilometers (772,000 square miles) between Alaska and Russia, the Bering Sea has had a rough go of it the past two years. Last winter, sea ice extent in the region plummeted. An unusually warm Autumn followed. By November 2018, when ice should have begun to reform, the Bering Sea experienced the lowest ice extent ever documented in the satellite record for that time of year.

Then the weather shifted.

“For December and the first half of January, sea ice expanded quite a bit… the ice extent never got up to average, but it was pretty close; we were almost at 90 per cent by the middle of January,” said Rick Thoman, a retired climatologist with the National Weather Service who now serves as an Alaska climate specialist at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks International Arctic Research Center. “However, in the last week of January the weather pattern changed pretty dramatically.” An anticyclone system formed over Arctic Canada, with high pressure over northwestern Canada and low pressure in the Bering Sea. These two systems drew warm air into the region from the south, halting the formation of new ice while also pushing existing ice out to the north. Bad weather only exacerbated these losses.

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