A Key Arctic Sea Is ‘Losing the Battle Against Atlantic Water’

Europe’s Barents Sea, whose waters have warmed by 2.7 degrees F this century, is rapidly being transformed from an Arctic marine environment to a North Atlantic one, with potentially major consequences for the region’s fish, birds, and marine mammals, according to a new study.

Reporting in the journal Nature Climate Change, Norwegian researchers said that the Barents Sea — located above Scandinavia and northwestern Russia — has experienced a 60 percent decline in the volume of sea ice that forms in the sea itself or drifts down from high Arctic regions. As a consequence, much of the Barents Sea — long a highly stratified system in which cold, fresh water from melting sea ice lay above warmer, saltier  water — has now become much more like a North Atlantic Ocean ecosystem, with abundant mixing of fresh and saltwater layers, the study said.

The paper cited a “fundamental shift in the physical environment” of the Barents Sea and said that the sea could be the first Arctic frontier region “to lose the battle against Atlantic water.” The study, led by Sigrid Lind at Norway’s Institute of Marine Science, said that northern parts of the Barents Sea may well lose all freshwater/saltwater stratification by 2040. Those changes, coupled with rapidly rising sea temperatures, are expected to threaten creatures adapted to the previous Barents Sea environment and to become more hospitable to North Atlantic species.  

“Consequences of these changes may be widespread and dramatic,” Igor Polyakov of the International Arctic Research Center, told the Web site Carbon Brief.

Similar changes are occurring all around the Arctic Ocean, recent research shows.