Marine Science Conference Zeroes In On The Arctic

Monday, January 21 2013

Courtesy of Alaska Marine Science Symposium

This week, field researchers are gathered in downtown Anchorage to talk about the changes they’ve seen in Alaskan coastal waters, with a particular focus on the Arctic -- including the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea. KUCB’s Lauren Rosenthal is at the event and has this preview.

The 900 scientists gathered at the Alaska Marine Science symposium aren’t just here to present research. Together, they’re trying to establish a baseline picture of the ecosystems and weather conditions that make up the Arctic.

And they’re trying to figure out how to do that at the same time as climate change and development are transforming the region.

Since 2007, the Arctic has seen six unusually warm summers with very little sea ice. And over time, the ice has been slower and slower to come back in the fall. One group of researchers has found that the loss of ice will speed global warming -- and during their presentation, they’ll be calling a warmer Arctic “the new normal.”

A separate team from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has taken that one step further. They’re presenting an updated forecast of Arctic summers, and they’re saying they could be completely devoid of sea ice by 2030.

That means big changes for ecosystems and subsistence communities. It could have implications for oil and gas development off Alaska’s shores, too.

Molly McCammon helped organize the conference. She’s also the executive director of the Alaska Ocean Observing System. McCammon wants to know what it would take to build a barebones observing system in the Alaskan Arctic. She plans to ask the scientists at a town hall meeting this week:

"What would it look like? What does the scientific community think should be the core of a program like that? If all the funding went away and you were only going to do one thing, what should that one thing be?"

Only a handful of the scientists in attendance will actually present their research, McCammon says. Most people are here to talk -- to network, and coordinate with others working in their field.

That’s what brought Ted Durbin to Anchorage, all the way from Rhode Island. Durbin does field research on food chains in the Bering Sea, studying the ways that climate and melt-off affect low levels of the food chain.  

Durbin isn’t here to make a presentation. He says he’s come to check in with other food chain researchers.

"There are colleagues from different insitutions around the country who are here, so we can talk with them and have discussions about our research."

That’s what attracts Alaska stakeholders, like commercial fishermen and village representatives, to the conference as well. They’ll have the opportunity to talk directly with the scientists whose work affects wildlife and fisheries management in the region.

A NOAA team will present new research on the controversy surrounding Steller sea lions. They’ve been looking at the relationship between the endangered sea lions’ diet, and the commercial groundfishery in the central Aleutian Islands.

Another team has been studying the factors that keep pollock from becoming healthy adults in the eastern Bering Sea, and whether climate is one of them.

But even those stakeholders who couldn’t make it this year will hear much more about the research -- and conversations it sparked -- well into 2013.

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