North America

Alaskan melt alarms residents, scientists

Scientists say sea ice has disappeared far earlier than normal along the Alaskan coast. (AAP)

Exceptionally warm ocean temperatures have been blamed for the widespread early melting of sea ice along the northern Alaskan coast.

Sea ice along northern Alaska has disappeared far earlier than normal this spring, alarming coastal residents who rely on wildlife and fish.

Exceptionally warm ocean temperatures have been blamed for the excessive melt.

The phenomenon has been "crazy," says Janet Mitchell of Kivalina in Northwest Arctic Borough.

Hunters from her family travelled in early June more than 80 kilometres by boat to find bearded seals on sea ice.

Also known as square flipper seals, the pinnipeds were previously hunted just outside the village but sea ice has receded far to the north.

"We didn't know if we'd have our winter food," she says. "That was scary."

The hunters ran out of petrol after harvesting eight seals and a walrus. They were able to call other residents to deliver fuel.

Rick Thoman, a climatologist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment & Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, posted on social media last week that the northern Bering and southern Chukchi seas are "baking".

Sea surface temperatures last week were as high as five degrees above the 1981-2010 average, he said, with effects on the climate system, food web, communities and commerce.

Kotzebue and Norton sounds were warmest but the heat extended far out into the ocean.

The warmth is weeks ahead of schedule and part of a "positive feedback loop" compounded by climate change.

Rising ocean temperatures have led to less sea ice, which leads to warmer ocean temperatures, Thorman says.

The last five years have produced the warmest sea-surface temperatures on record in the region, contributing to record low sea-ice levels.

"The waters are warmer than last year at this time, and that was an extremely warm year," Thoman says.

Lisa Sheffield Guy of the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States oversees an online platform that allows Alaska Native walrus hunters to share tips on sea ice, weather and hunting.

The need for reporting ended May 31 because coastal sea ice had melted.

"When we started in 2010, we would go until the last week of June," she says.

Guy is a seabird biologist who studied birds on St. Lawrence Island south of the Bering Strait.

She's worried warmer temperatures will make it harder for seabirds to find the tiny seafood they eat. The heat might push their prey deeper or away from the area.

Warmer ocean temperatures come as hunters report large numbers of dead seals off Alaska's western and northern coasts, Thoman says.

An unusually large number of dead grey whales have also been found off Alaska's southern coasts, where sea surface temperatures are also unusually high.

It's not known whether the warm water has contributed.

"Certainly it's all happening at the same time," Thorman says.

In March, the high temperatures were blamed for a large ice shelf breaking from the coast near Nome in March, dragging tethered crab pots.

The ice also swept away gold mining equipment, forcing a helicopter rescue for three miners who unsuccessfully tried to save it.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will conduct an unusually extensive fish survey in the Bering Strait this summer, Thoman says.

It could provide clues for possible impacts to Bering Sea fisheries.

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch