How Does Climate Change Affect the Bering Sea Ecosystem?

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Abstract

The Bering Sea is one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world, sustaining nearly half of U.S. annual commercial fish catches and providing food and cultural value to thousands of coastal and island residents. Fish and crab are abundant in the Bering Sea; whales, seals, and seabirds migrate there every year.

In winter, the topography, latitude, atmosphere, and ocean circulation combine to produce a sea ice advance in the Bering Sea unmatched elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, and in spring the retreating ice; longer daylight hours; and nutrient-rich, deep-ocean waters forced up onto the broad continental shelf result in intense marine productivity (Figure 1). This seasonal ice cover is a major driver of Bering Sea ecology, making this ecosystem particularly sensitive to changes in climate. Predicted changes in ice cover in the coming decades have intensified concern about the future of this economically and culturally important region. In response, the North Pacific Research Board (NPRB) and the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) entered into a partnership in 2007 to support the Bering Sea Project, a comprehensive $52 million investigation to understand how climate change is affecting the Bering Sea ecosystem, ranging from lower trophic levels (e.g., plankton) to fish, seabirds, marine mammals, and, ultimately, humans. The project integrates two research programs, the NSF Bering Ecosystem Study (BEST) and the NPRB Bering Sea Integrated Ecosystem Research Program (BSIERP), with substantial in-kind contributions from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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