Researchers Witness Clear Changes with Significant Consequences for the Barents Sea

Toktbilde fra Arven etter Nansen 2021
Photo from the Nansen Legacy 2021 voyage with the Kronprins Haakon research vessel in the background. Researchers are working on ice with little or no snow cover. (Photo: Sebastian Gerland, the Norwegian Polar Institute)

The Barents Sea, as we knew it, is no more, according to a new scientific publication from Norway's largest collaborative project: The Nansen Legacy.

Les på norsk

The ice-free southern part of the Barents Sea has been well-mapped and understood, while the northern part, covered in ice during winter, stands out as one of the polar regions where climate and ecosystem changes are most pronounced.

An analysis of the physical, chemical, and biological conditions in this part of the Barents Sea sheds light on extensive changes over the past decades, writes the Norwegian Meteorological Institute in a press release.

The physical environment in the area experiences significant seasonal variability, with partial ice cover in winter and spring, contrasting mainly open waters in summer and fall. Observations over several decades reveal warming air and ocean temperatures, diminishing sea ice cover, weakened ocean stratification, and changes in water chemistry and the ecosystem.

Major differences

Some of the typical Arctic characteristics are weakened, but the results also show major differences between years, and the influence of large-scale variations highlights the challenge of studying changing systems.

“We see that the northern Barents Sea is affected by a warmer climate. Some more southern species can survive further north than before, but we still observe an Arctic ecosystem in the northern Barents Sea,” says project leader and professor Marit Reigstad (UiT – The Arctic University of Norway), a co-author in the new publication that came out in the scientific journal Elementa – Science of the Anthropocene.

An exciting chapter unfolding beneath the Arctic horizon.
Sebastian Gerland of the Norwegian Meteorological Institute.

The physical changes in the Barents Sea, with warmer air and sea and less ice, extend far beyond local significance and impact the sea further into the Arctic. These changes play a central role in terms of water and air mass transport and how the sea ice moves between adjacent sea areas and internally in the Barents Sea.

Affects the ecosystem

“The changes we have seen and studied are significant for other Arctic regions as well,” says researcher Sebastian Gerland (Norwegian Polar Institute), the lead author of the new publication.

These changes affect the accessibility of the region and, consequently, the level of human activity desired in the area. They also impact the ecosystem and, therefore, the economy, especially in fisheries.

Although several of these changes are now monitored and quantified, there is still limited understanding and data, especially from field observations in winter months when sample collections are challenging due to ice, darkness, and cold.

They believe that understanding the interaction between physical and biogeochemical drivers, as well as ecosystem response and complex feedback processes, requires further attention.

“The research on the development of the Barents Sea not only provides insights into the region’s dynamics but also points towards the need for an improved understanding of climate change and its effects globally. What these changes mean for the future is an exciting chapter unfolding beneath the Arctic horizon,” concludes Gerland.

Also read