Climate change

Arctic 'shorefast' sea ice used by residents for hunting and fishing will be reduced by global heating

written by Oceanographic Staff

A team of Brown University researchers has discovered that climate change could significantly reduce ‘shorefast ice’ – the sea ice that forms along shorelines – across Northern Canada and Western Greenland. It is a vital resource that connects isolated communities and provides access to hunting and fishing grounds.

The analysis found that by 2100, communities could see shorefast ice seasons reduced by anywhere from five to 44 days, with the coldest communities in the study seeing the largest reductions. According to the researchers, the wide range of potential outcomes was a surprise and underscores the need to take local factors into account when making policy to prepare for future climate change.

“One of the key takeaways for me is that even though the whole Arctic is going to warm and lose ice, we see very different outcomes from one community to another,” said Sarah Cooley, lead author of the study and a Ph.D. student in the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (IBES). “When you combine that wide range of outcomes with the fact that different communities have lots of social, cultural and economic differences, it means that some communities may experience much larger impacts than others.”

For example, the northern Canadian communities of Clyde River and Taloyoak will see some of the most substantial declines in sea ice. They are particularly dependent upon shorefast ice for subsistence hunting and fishing. On average, these two communities can expect ice to break up 23 to 44 days earlier, respectively by 2100. The researcher state that this could mean those economically and culturally significant activities on the ice will be harder to maintain in the future.

The research team used weather data and near-daily satellite observations of 28 Arctic communities to determine the timing of shorefast ice breakup in each location throughout the past 19 years. This analysis enabled them to determine the conditions that drive springtime ice breakup. They then used climate models to predict how that timing might change in each community as climate change progresses.

“Some of these places are considered to be the last remnants of truly polar ecosystems and people talk a lot about preserving these areas in particular,” said study co-author Johnny Ryan, a postdoctoral researcher at IBES. “Yet these are the areas that we find will lose the most ice.”

Their analysis is part of a larger research effort aimed at gaining a better understanding of how climate change  will impact the people who live in the Arctic. Going ahead, the research team hopes that mapping the local effects of regional and global climate patterns will be useful for policy-makers.

“Shorefast ice is something that’s most important from the standpoint of the people who use it,” Cooley said. “It has some implications in terms of global climate, but those are fairly small. This is really all about how it affects the people who actually live in the Arctic, and that’s why we’re studying it.”

To read the full study, “Coldest Canadian Arctic communities face greatest reductions in shorefast sea ice”, click here.

Photographs by Sarah Cooley, courtesy of Brown University.

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