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Two biologists from the biological lab in Solomons are making their way to the Arctic with international scientists to observe the biological response to sea ice retreat.
University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Chesapeake Biological Laboratory biologists Jackie Grebmeier and Lee Cooper have made their way to Seattle to gather with international scientists to establish a Distributed Biological Observatory in the North American Arctic, according to a news release from UMCES. Researchers from Japan, Korea, China, Canada and Russia will join Grebmeier and Cooper in the effort to systematically track the biological response to sea ice retreat and the resulting environmental changes in the Bering and Chukchi seas to the west and north of Alaska.
“The question of climate change is always controversial. But it’s clear that our climate in the Arctic is changing,” Cooper, a research professor of the CBL, said Friday.
At five “hot spot” observing stations, the researchers will monitor everything from temperature and salinity of water and the amount of zooplankton swimming around in the waters to clams clinging to seashores and how many birds, walruses and polar bears continue to call the area home, according to the release.
The funding for the project, Grebmeier said, comes from a five-year award from the National Science Foundation.
She explained that the scientists will be traveling among the five observing stations throughout the year, but mostly during the summer months, to track the changes.
“The goal is to observe and document how the arctic creatures are responding to climate change and track those ecosystem changes under further loss of sea ice,” the release states.
With the ice retreating, Cooper said, more animals are swimming further out into the water, thus, more animals are occupying open water. He said there are also larger phytoplankton blooms now that the ice is retreating, and that is affecting the ecosystem under water.
Grebmeier explained that warmer temperatures are heading north because the ice is no longer helping to keep the region cold, and so many animals are living further north. But that poses another problem, she said, because in the winter, some ice starts to reform and the colder temperatures return, and the animals aren’t prepared.
This northern living capability has created a new competition between whales in the Arctic, Grebmeier said. Gray whales, which are usually found in the Arctic in the summer months, are moving further north, she said, and are now competing with the bowhead whale that is specifically associated with the ice.
“People up there, they’re living on the edge of what’s happening,” Grebmeier said. She explained that many of the human populations live on the now-unstable ice platforms. She said people are having to also travel further north and further into open waters for hunting purposes.
The retreating ice also has permitted more travel in the Bering Strait, she explained, adding that it has its own effects on the ecosystems.
“There’s a whole gamut of change going on up there,” Grebmeier said.
Grebmeier, a research professor with the laboratory, and Cooper have been visiting the area north of Alaska near the Bering Strait for more than 30 years, they said Friday. In the last few years, they have seen things change, and fast.
“The open water, that’s really new,” Cooper said. “You used to look out at the horizon and see nothing but ice.”
“Last summer was the highest ice retreat in the Arctic record, and eight of the last  years have seen the lowest ice on record,” the release said.
According to the release, ice formed over multiple years keeps the Arctic cold and “helps control weather around the world.”
“The sea ice is disappearing and temperatures are getting warmer,” Cooper said, adding that the effects of the retreating ice can be felt in Maryland. “It’s allowing the colder temperatures to come down.”
In the release, Cooper said, “It has been projected that there won’t be ice in the summer in the Arctic Ocean by 2050. But the ice is disappearing faster than all of the models.”