Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Arctic Ocean


The subtropical ocean gyres are recognized as great marine accummulation zones of floating plastic debris; however, the possibility of plastic accumulation at polar latitudes has been overlooked because of the lack of nearby pollution sources. In the present study, the Arctic Ocean was extensively sampled for floating plastic debris from the Tara Oceans circumpolar expedition. Although plastic debris was scarce or absent in most of the Arctic waters, it reached high concentrations (hundreds of thousands of pieces per square kilometer) in the northernmost and easternmost areas of the Greenland and Barents seas. The fragmentation and typology of the plastic suggested an abundant presence of aged debris that originated from distant sources. This hypothesis was corroborated by the relatively high ratios of marine surface plastic to local pollution sources. Surface circulation models and field data showed that the poleward branch of the Thermohaline Circulation transfers floating debris from the North Atlantic to the Greenland and Barents seas, which would be a dead end for this plastic conveyor belt. Given the limited surface transport of the plastic that accumulated here and the mechanisms acting for the downward transport, the seafloor beneath this Arctic sector is hypothesized as an important sink of plastic debris.

Concepts: Earth, Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Ocean, Arctic Ocean, Arctic, Antarctica, Marine debris


From 2012 to 2016, California experienced one of the worst droughts since the start of observational records. As in previous dry periods, precipitation-inducing winter storms were steered away from California by a persistent atmospheric ridging system in the North Pacific. Here we identify a new link between Arctic sea-ice loss and the North Pacific geopotential ridge development. In a two-step teleconnection, sea-ice changes lead to reorganization of tropical convection that in turn triggers an anticyclonic response over the North Pacific, resulting in significant drying over California. These findings suggest that the ability of climate models to accurately estimate future precipitation changes over California is also linked to the fidelity with which future sea-ice changes are simulated. We conclude that sea-ice loss of the magnitude expected in the next decades could substantially impact California’s precipitation, thus highlighting another mechanism by which human-caused climate change could exacerbate future California droughts.

Concepts: Earth, United States, Precipitation, Climate, Weather, Meteorology, Ocean, Arctic Ocean


Efforts to understand the influence of historical global warming on individual extreme climate events have increased over the past decade. However, despite substantial progress, events that are unprecedented in the local observational record remain a persistent challenge. Leveraging observations and a large climate model ensemble, we quantify uncertainty in the influence of global warming on the severity and probability of the historically hottest month, hottest day, driest year, and wettest 5-d period for different areas of the globe. We find that historical warming has increased the severity and probability of the hottest month and hottest day of the year at >80% of the available observational area. Our framework also suggests that the historical climate forcing has increased the probability of the driest year and wettest 5-d period at 57% and 41% of the observed area, respectively, although we note important caveats. For the most protracted hot and dry events, the strongest and most widespread contributions of anthropogenic climate forcing occur in the tropics, including increases in probability of at least a factor of 4 for the hottest month and at least a factor of 2 for the driest year. We also demonstrate the ability of our framework to systematically evaluate the role of dynamic and thermodynamic factors such as atmospheric circulation patterns and atmospheric water vapor, and find extremely high statistical confidence that anthropogenic forcing increased the probability of record-low Arctic sea ice extent.

Concepts: Earth, Precipitation, Climate, Climate change, Arctic Ocean, Global warming, Arctic shrinkage, Sea ice


Changes in the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) are moderate in most climate model projections under increasing greenhouse gas forcing. This intermodel consensus may be an artifact of common model biases that favor a stable AMOC. Observationally based freshwater budget analyses suggest that the AMOC is in an unstable regime susceptible for large changes in response to perturbations. By correcting the model biases, we show that the AMOC collapses 300 years after the atmospheric CO2 concentration is abruptly doubled from the 1990 level. Compared to an uncorrected model, the AMOC collapse brings about large, markedly different climate responses: a prominent cooling over the northern North Atlantic and neighboring areas, sea ice increases over the Greenland-Iceland-Norwegian seas and to the south of Greenland, and a significant southward rain-belt migration over the tropical Atlantic. Our results highlight the need to develop dynamical metrics to constrain models and the importance of reducing model biases in long-term climate projection.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Earth, Climate, Atlantic Ocean, Climate change, Arctic Ocean, Antarctica, Thermohaline circulation


In recent decades, many marine populations have experienced major declines in abundance, but we still know little about where management interventions may help protect the highest levels of marine biodiversity. We used modeled spatial distribution data for nearly 12,500 species to quantify global patterns of species richness and two measures of endemism. By combining these data with spatial information on cumulative human impacts, we identified priority areas where marine biodiversity is most and least impacted by human activities, both within Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ). Our analyses highlighted places that are both accepted priorities for marine conservation like the Coral Triangle, as well as less well-known locations in the southwest Indian Ocean, western Pacific Ocean, Arctic and Antarctic Oceans, and within semi-enclosed seas like the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas. Within highly impacted priority areas, climate and fishing were the biggest stressors. Although new priorities may arise as we continue to improve marine species range datasets, results from this work are an essential first step in guiding limited resources to regions where investment could best sustain marine biodiversity.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Australia, Ocean, Arctic Ocean, Southern Ocean


In their new paper, Bellanger and coauthors show substantial economic impacts to the EU from neurocognitive impairment associated with methylmercury (MeHg) exposures. The main source of MeHg exposure is seafood consumption, including many marine species harvested from the global oceans. Fish, birds and other wildlife are also susceptible to the impacts of MeHg and already exceed toxicological thresholds in vulnerable regions like the Arctic. Most future emissions scenarios project a growth or stabilization of anthropogenic mercury releases relative to present-day levels. At these emissions levels, inputs of mercury to ecosystems are expected to increase substantially in the future, in part due to growth in the legacy reservoirs of mercury in oceanic and terrestrial ecosystems. Seawater mercury concentration trajectories in areas such as the North Pacific Ocean that supply large quantities of marine fish to the global seafood market are projected to increase by more than 50% by 2050. Fish mercury levels and subsequent human and biological exposures are likely to also increase because production of MeHg in ocean ecosystems is driven by the supply of available inorganic mercury, among other factors. Analyses that only consider changes in primary anthropogenic emissions are likely to underestimate the severity of future deposition and concentration increases associated with growth in mercury reservoirs in the land and ocean. We therefore recommend that future policy analyses consider the fully coupled interactions among short and long-lived reservoirs of mercury in the atmosphere, ocean, and terrestrial ecosystems. Aggressive anthropogenic emission reductions are needed to reduce MeHg exposures and associated health impacts on humans and wildlife and protect the integrity of one of the last wild-food sources globally. In the near-term, public health advice on safe fish consumption choices such as smaller species, younger fish, and harvests from relatively unpolluted ecosystems is needed to minimize exposure risks.

Concepts: Fish, United States, Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Ocean, Seafood, Arctic Ocean, Oceans


Despite numerous investigations, the dynamical origins of the Medieval Climate Anomaly and the Little Ice Age remain uncertain. A major unresolved issue relating to internal climate dynamics is the mode and tempo of Atlantic meridional overturning circulation variability, and the significance of decadal-to-centennial scale changes in Atlantic meridional overturning circulation strength in regulating the climate of the last millennium. Here we use the time-constrained high-resolution local radiocarbon reservoir age offset derived from an absolutely dated annually resolved shell chronology spanning the past 1,350 years, to reconstruct changes in surface ocean circulation and climate. The water mass tracer data presented here from the North Icelandic shelf, combined with previously published data from the Arctic and subtropical Atlantic, show that surface Atlantic meridional overturning circulation dynamics likely amplified the relatively warm conditions during the Medieval Climate Anomaly and the relatively cool conditions during the Little Ice Age within the North Atlantic sector.

Concepts: Earth, Climate, Atlantic Ocean, Ocean, Arctic Ocean, Greenland, Thermohaline circulation, North Atlantic Deep Water


In late December 2015, widespread media interest revolved around forecasts that the surface air temperature at the North Pole would rise above freezing. Although there has been significant interest in the enhanced warming that is occurring at high northern latitudes, a process known as arctic amplification, remarkably little is known about these midwinter warming events at the pole including their frequency, duration and magnitude as well as the environmental conditions responsible for their occurrence. Here we use buoy and radiosonde data along with operational weather forecasts and atmospheric reanalyses to show that such events are associated with surface cyclones near the pole as well as a highly perturbed polar vortex. They occur once or twice each decade with the earliest identified event taking place in 1959. In addition, the warmest midwinter temperatures at the North Pole have been increasing at a rate that is twice as large as that for mean midwinter temperatures at the pole. It is argued that this enhanced trend is consistent with the loss of winter sea ice from the Nordic Seas that moves the reservoir of warm air over this region northwards making it easier for weather systems to transport this heat polewards.

Concepts: Earth, Heat, Navigation, Arctic Ocean, North Pole, Weather forecasting, Latitude, Polar bear


Loss of Arctic sea ice owing to climate change is the primary threat to polar bears throughout their range. We evaluated the potential response of polar bears to sea-ice declines by (i) calculating generation length (GL) for the species, which determines the timeframe for conservation assessments; (ii) developing a standardized sea-ice metric representing important habitat; and (iii) using statistical models and computer simulation to project changes in the global population under three approaches relating polar bear abundance to sea ice. Mean GL was 11.5 years. Ice-covered days declined in all subpopulation areas during 1979-2014 (median -1.26 days year(-1)). The estimated probabilities that reductions in the mean global population size of polar bears will be greater than 30%, 50% and 80% over three generations (35-41 years) were 0.71 (range 0.20-0.95), 0.07 (range 0-0.35) and less than 0.01 (range 0-0.02), respectively. According to IUCN Red List reduction thresholds, which provide a common measure of extinction risk across taxa, these results are consistent with listing the species as vulnerable. Our findings support the potential for large declines in polar bear numbers owing to sea-ice loss, and highlight near-term uncertainty in statistical projections as well as the sensitivity of projections to different plausible assumptions.

Concepts: Arctic Ocean, Arctic, Pinniped, Bear, Polar bear, Arctic shrinkage, IUCN Red List, Sea ice


Fossils attributable to the extinct waterfowl clade Presbyornithidae and the large flightless Gastornithidae from the early Eocene (~52-53 Ma) of Ellesmere Island, in northernmost Canada are the oldest Cenozoic avian fossils from the Arctic. Except for its slightly larger size, the Arctic presbyornithid humerus is not distinguishable from fossils of Presbyornis pervetus from the western United States, and the Gastornis phalanx is within the known size range of mid-latitude individuals. The occurrence of Presbyornis above the Arctic Circle in the Eocene could be the result of annual migration like that of its living duck and geese relatives, or it may have been a year-round resident similar to some Eocene mammals on Ellesmere and some extant species of sea ducks. Gastornis, along with some of the mammalian and reptilian members of the Eocene Arctic fauna, likely over-wintered in the Arctic. Despite the milder (above freezing) Eocene climate on Ellesmere Island, prolonged periods of darkness occurred during the winter. Presence of these extinct birds at both mid and high latitudes on the northern continents provides evidence that future increases in climatic warming (closer to Eocene levels) could lead to the establishment of new migratory or resident populations within the Arctic Circle.

Concepts: Earth, Bird, Canada, Arctic Ocean, Dinosaur, Arctic Circle, Eocene, Latitude