File photo

File photo

Frozen North gone forever: Study of Arctic Ocean shows top of the world changing

The Arctic Ocean, where climate change has bitten deepest, may be changing faster than any other water body on Earth

The top of the world is turning upside down, says the first overall assessment of Canada’s Arctic Ocean.

The work of dozens of federal scientists and Inuit observers, it describes a vast ecosystem in unprecedented flux: from ocean currents to the habits and types of animals that swim in it.

The Arctic Ocean, where climate change has bitten deepest, may be changing faster than any other water body on Earth, said lead scientist Andrea Niemi of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

“As the Arctic changes, the rest of the ecosystem is going to track with those changes,” she said. ”There isn’t going to be a delay.”

Changes are coming so fast scientists haven’t even had a chance to understand what’s there.

Sixty per cent of the species in the Canada Basin — like the worms found living in undersea mud volcanoes and living off expelled methane — are yet to be discovered, the report suggests

“Who knows what else is down there?” Niemi asked. “So much in the Arctic, we’re still at step one.”

The first assessment of fish species in the Beaufort Sea wasn’t done until 2014, she said.

Still, changes are hard to miss, right down to the makeup of the water.

It’s 33 per cent less salty than in 2003 and about 30 per cent more acidic — enough to dissolve the shells of some small molluscs. The Beaufort Gyre, a vast circular current that has alternated direction every decade, hasn’t switched in 19 years.

Nutrient-rich water from the Pacific Ocean isn’t getting mixed in as it used to, which affects the plankton blooms that anchor the Arctic food web. Sea ice is shrinking and thinning to the point where Inuit communities can’t get to formerly dependable hunting grounds.

Shorelines are on the move. Erosion has more than doubled in the last few decades.

The mix of species is changing.

Killer whales are becoming so frequent they’re altering the behaviour of other species such as narwhal and beluga that Inuit depend on. Pacific salmon, capelin and harp seals are moving up from the south.

“In some cases, the communities are putting out their nets and they’re just catching salmon,” Niemi said.

The effect of the salmon on other species is unknown.

Coastal fish species are being found much further offshore. Ringed seals can’t finish moulting before the ice breaks up and accompanying high ocean temperatures seem to be making them sluggish and more prone to polar bear predation.

Humans are making their presence felt, too. Increased Arctic shipping is making the ocean noisier and masking the sounds animals from seals to whales use to communicate.

The report’s conclusions are hamstrung by a lack of long-term data all over the North. Niemi said it’s hard to measure changes when you don’t know what was there in the first place.

Even when the changes can be measured, it’s difficult to know what’s causing them. Inuit communities want to know what’s going on in their home, she said.

“They’re interested in a holistic view of what’s going on. But we’re just handcuffed sometimes to provide the mechanisms behind the changes.”

One thing is certain: The old idea of the frozen North, with its eternal snows and unchanging rhythms, is gone forever.

“People see it as a faraway frozen land,” Niemi said. “But there is much happening.”

Climate Change

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Asymptomatic testing will now be available for "priority groups" who are most likely to spread the COVID-19 virus to vulnerable or at-risk populations. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
A judge has found an Edmonton woman guilty of manslaughter in the death of her five-year-old daughter. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton mother found guilty of manslaughter in death of 5-year-old girl

The woman was charged and pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and assault with weapons, including a belt and a spatula

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Alberta identifies 2,042 new COVID-19 cases Saturday

Central zone has 2,917 active cases

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Jason Kenney urges federal government to push U.S. for surplus COVID-19 vaccines

‘It makes no sense for our neighbours and regional states to be sitting on doses that we cannot use,’ the premier said

Alberta reported an additional 1,980 cases of COVID-19 Friday. (NIAID-RML via AP)
Red Deer adds 37th death from COVID-19, active cases drop

Alberta Health identified an additional 1,980 cases of the virus province-wide

Dr. Karina Pillay, former mayor of Slave Lake, Alta., is shown at her medical clinic in Calgary on Friday, April 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
10 years later: Former Slave Lake mayor remembers wildfire that burned through town

Alberta announced in 2011 that an unknown arsonist had recklessly or deliberately ignited the forest fire

The body of Brenda Ware, 35, was found along Highway 93 in Kootenay National Park on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (RCMP handout)
RCMP ask for tips after woman travelling from Alberta found dead in B.C. park

Brenda Ware was found along Highway 93 in the park, 54 kilometres north of the town of Radium

A caribou grazes on Baffin Island in a 2008 file photo. A last-ditch attempt to save some of Canada’s vanishing caribou herds is a step closer after a scientific review panel’s approval of a plan to permanently pen some animals and breed them to repopulate other herds. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kike Calvo via AP Images
Parks Canada captive caribou breeding proposal gets OK from scientific review panel

Wolf density in Jasper is low enough that the animals would not be expected to be a major threat

People pass the red hearts on the COVID-19 Memorial Wall mourning those who have died, opposite the Houses of Parliament on the Embankment in London, Wednesday, April 7, 2021. On May 3, the British government announced that only one person had died of COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kirsty Wigglesworth
For a view of a COVID-19 future, Canadians should look across the pond

Britain, like Canada, is one of the only countries in the world to delay second doses for several months

Nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, carry some of her relics during a vigil of prayer in preparation for the canonization of Mother Teresa in the St. John in Latheran Basilica at the Vatican, Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. In which city did she do much of her charitable work? (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
QUIZ: How much do you know about these motherhood issues?

In honour of Mother’s Day, take this 10-question quiz

Canada’s chief public health officer is reminding Canadians even those who are fully vaccinated are not immune from transmitting the COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s top doctor warns full vaccination does not equal full protection from COVID-19

Post-inoculation, Theresa Tam says the risk of asymptomatic infection and transmission is far lower but not obsolete

Jennifer Coffman, owner of Truffle Pigs in Field, B.C., poses beside her business sign on Thursday, May 6, 2021, in this handout photo. Her restaurant and lodge have been hit hard by a closure of a section of the Trans-Canada Highway and by the British Columbia government discouraging Alberta residents from visiting during the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Jennifer Coffman, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
‘Why we survive’: B.C. boundary towns struggle without Albertans during pandemic

Jennifer Coffman’s restaurant is located in the tiny community of Field, which relies on tourism

A rodeo south of Bowden drew a huge crowd on May 1 and 2, 2021. (Photo courtesy Mom’s Diner’s Facebook page)

Most Read