‘Spicy’ ocean levels could spell trouble for marine mammal hunting

The Arctic Ocean is getting spicier. A new study published in the Journal of Physical Oceanography suggests that rising temperatures in the far north could result in what’s known as spicy water, or warmer water in which density is more affected by temperature than salinity.

Download Audio

The borders of the Arctic Ocean, according to the CIA The World Factbook[5] (blue area), and as defined by the IHO (black outline - excluding marginal waterbodies). Image: Wikimedia Commons.
The borders of the Arctic Ocean, according to the CIA The World Factbook[5] (blue area), and as defined by the IHO (black outline – excluding marginal waterbodies). Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Yes, you heard that right—the Arctic Ocean is about to get spicier. Mary-Louise Timmermans is a professor and oceanographer at Yale University. She studies how ocean circulation affects sea ice in the Arctic.

“For it to get spicier means it’s going to get warmer and changes in temperature will affect density to the same measure that changes in salinity affect density,” Timmermans said.

Everyone knows that the deeper you go in the ocean, the colder it gets, right? That’s because cold water is more dense than warm water, so naturally it sinks to the ocean floor. But Timmermans said the dynamics are different in the Arctic.

“At low temperatures the water doesn’t really care whether it’s warm or cold,” Timmermans said.

Seawater in the Arctic Ocean is so cold that temperature isn’t the deciding factor in its density. Instead, Timmermans said, salinity, or how salty the water is, makes more of a difference.

But that’s about to change as the climate changes.

“As you warm up the ocean, it turns out temperature changes can have a bigger impact on density than in a cooler ocean.” Timmermans said.

Timmermans teamed up with Steven Jayne of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The two found that a spicier Arctic will likely be able to store more heat.

“This means that the way that the Arctic Ocean works will be somewhat different,” Timmermans said.

It’s tough to predict just how different the Arctic will be, but Timmermans says warmer seawater may speed up sea ice melt. That’s bad news for marine mammal hunters like Brandon Ahmasuk.

“The sea ice, it offers a protective barrier,” Ahmasuk said. “It keeps the ripples and waves down. It keeps them from forming.”

Ahmasuk is Kawerak’s Subsistence Director based in Nome. He grew up out on the water hunting with his dad. He now takes his own kids with him to hunt for bearded seal, or ugruk, and walrus.

“When you have that larger open water, it’s more susceptible to large waves [and] bad weather,” Ahmasuk said.

He says if warmer, saltier seawater makes for thinner, sparser sea ice, most hunters won’t fare too well in their standard 18-foot Lund boats.

“Your side height on a Lund boat is only 28 inches, but if you have four or six foot rollers coming at you, you’re probably not going to want to be out there,” Ahmasuk said.

But some villages, especially the ones without grocery stores to rely on, might not have any other choice. Despite the potentially more dangerous conditions, to hunters like Ahmasuk, a spicier ocean is still the best grocery store around. “When you have that larger open water, it’s more susceptible to large waves [and] bad weather.”

 

Previous articleLongtime Unalaska preschool teacher retires
Next articleSeattle’s KPLU meets $7M fundraising goal, avoiding sale
Emily Russell, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage
Emily Russell is the voice of Alaska morning news as Alaska Public Media’s Morning News Host and Producer. Originally from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Emily moved to Alaska in 2012. She skied her way through three winters in Fairbanks, earning her Master’s degree in Northern Studies from UAF. Emily’s career in radio started in Nome in 2015, reporting for KNOM on everything from subsistence whale harvests to housing shortages in Native villages. She then worked for KCAW in Sitka, finally seeing what all the fuss with Southeast, Alaska was all about. Back on the road system, Emily is looking forward to driving her Subaru around the region to hike, hunt, fish and pick as many berries as possible. When she’s not talking into the mic in the morning, Emily can be found reporting from the peaks above Anchorage to the rivers around Southcentral.