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For the second straight year, the Bering Sea — a turbulent and bountiful stretch of the northern Pacific Ocean — is virtually ice free at a time of year when it should be gaining ice.

Expand chart
Reproduced from Rick Thoman using NSIDC data; Chart: Axios Visuals

Why it matters: The ice pack's ebb and flow each year has far-reaching consequences for the broader Bering Sea ecosystem, including determining the reach and abundance of prized fish species such as Alaska pollock and Pacific cod. This is the richest fishing ground in the U.S., featured in the Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch."

The big picture: Scientists who keep close tabs on this region say the ice's early melt is upending life in the Last Frontier. It also portends consequences for the Lower 48 states and beyond. In a new study published in Earth's Future on Thursday, scientists warn that Arctic climate change is already reverberating far outside the region.

  • By the end of February, Bering Sea ice extent was lower than it has been since written records began in 1850.
  • The March 6 departure from the long-term average shows that an area of ice equivalent to California and Montana combined is missing from the Bering Sea.

Details: Rick Thoman, a scientist at the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, tells Axios that a combination of unusually mild ocean waters and a persistent, anomalous weather pattern combined to decimate the region's sea ice cover: "One year maybe is a fluke, two years sure looks like we’ve crossed a threshold now.”

  • Since Jan. 23, a series of 16 powerful low-pressure systems have moved north from the Pacific into the Bering Sea region, bringing heavy precipitation and mild southerly winds.
  • These winds have vaulted warm, moist air into the region and northward into the Arctic. They've also broken up the thin ice cover.

The impact:

  • March is normally when people would be crabbing and fishing out on the ice. That's not happening now.
  • The sea ice loss makes hunting animals like walrus and seals, which serve as key food sources for native Alaskans in coastal villages, far more risky: It's much harder to haul a dead walrus into a boat than up onto solid ice.
  • Communities exposed to high seas are seeing severe erosion and threats to their infrastructure.

Diana Haecker, a reporter for the Nome Nugget newspaper in Nome, Alaska, tells Axios in an email: "The disappearance of sea ice and the ensuing weather is not only impacting our lives, it is disrupting life and is forcing each one of us, hunter or not, to refocus our energy on sheer survival."

Context: Zack Labe, a PhD candidate at the University of California at Irvine, says that although the past two years have brought historically low Bering Sea ice conditions, year-to-year trends there can fluctuate considerably.

Labe says some years may see temporary upticks in Bering Sea ice extent, but that overall, climate change is now in the driver's seat.

  • A study published last year found that a marine heat wave in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska in 2016 cannot be explained without including human-caused global warming.

What's needed: Thoman says residents of the Lower 48 should be aware of and concerned about what's happening in Alaska: "The environment is changing and it’s impacting your fellow Americans now."

The bottom line: The loss of sea ice could change ocean temperatures, salinity and currents enough to alter the distribution and abundance of commercially valuable fish in this region. The stakes here are high, as the Alaska pollock fishery alone was worth $413 milion in 2017.

  • In addition, the global footprint of this region "is growing, not shrinking," according to a new study published Thursday in Earth's Future.

Go deeper

2 hours ago - World

Tunisian president ousts prime minister, suspends parliament amid unrest

Tunisians stage a protest in response to the problems in the health sector in the country, demanding the resignation of the government and the dissolution of the parliament in Tunis on July 25. Photo: Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Tunisian President Kais Saied announced Sunday that he had dismissed the country's prime minister and frozen the parliament amidst mass protests in the country, Reuters reports.

Why it matters: The move, which comes on the 64th anniversary of Tunisia's independence, escalates Saied's longstanding feud with Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and poses a challenge to the 2014 constitution that "split powers between president, prime minister and parliament," per Reuters.

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Pelosi appoints GOP Rep. Kinzinger to Jan. 6 committee

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced Sunday that she has appointed Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) to serve on the House select committee investigating the Jan 6. Capitol riot.

Why it matters: Pelosi's announcement comes after she rejected two of the five Republican appointments offered by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

USCP chief: Officers testifying before Jan. 6 committee "need to be heard"

Thomas Manger, the new chief of the U.S. Capitol Police, Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

New Capitol Police chief Tom Manger said officers testifying before the Jan. 6 select committee this week "need to be heard."

Driving the news: The select committee's first hearing is set to take place on Tuesday and will feature testimony from law enforcement officers who were subject to some of the worst of violence during the insurrection.