The Arctic Ocean may seem remote and forbidding, but to birds, whales and other animals, it’s a top-notch dining destination.
“It’s a great place to get food in the summertime, so animals are flying or swimming thousands of miles to get there,” said Kevin R. Arrigo, a biological oceanographer at Stanford University.
But the menu is changing. Confirming earlier research, scientists reported Wednesday that global warming is altering the ecology of the Arctic Ocean on a huge scale.
The annual production of algae, the base of the food web, increased an estimated 47 percent between 1997 and 2015, and the ocean is greening up much earlier each year.
These changes are likely to have a profound impact for animals further up the food chain, such as birds, seals, polar bears and whales. But scientists still don’t know enough about the biology of the Arctic Ocean to predict what the ecosystem will look like in decades to come.
While global warming has affected the whole planet in recent decades, nowhere has been hit harder than the Arctic. Last month, temperatures in the high Arctic were as much as 36 degrees above average, according to records kept by the Danish Meteorological Institute.
In October, the extent of sea ice was 28.5 percent below average — the lowest for the month since scientists began keeping records in 1979. The area of missing ice is the size of Alaska and Texas put together.
Since the mid-2000s, researchers like Arrigo have been trying to assess the effects of retreating ice on the Arctic ecosystem.
The sun returns to the Arctic each spring and melts some of the ice that formed in winter. Algae in the open water quickly spring to life and start growing.
These algae are the base of the food chain in the Arctic Ocean, grazed by krill and other invertebrates that in turn support bigger fish, mammals and birds.
Arrigo and his colleagues visited the Arctic in research ships to examine algae in the water and to determine how it affected the water’s color. They then reviewed satellite images of the Arctic Ocean, relying on the color of the water to estimate how much algae was growing — what scientists call the ocean’s productivity.
The sea’s productivity was rapidly increasing, Arrigo found. Last year he and his colleagues published their latest update, estimating that the productivity of the Arctic rose 30 percent between 1998 and 2012.