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

Concept: Arctic


Microplastics (MP) are recognized as a growing environmental hazard and have been identified as far as the remote Polar Regions, with particularly high concentrations of microplastics in sea ice. Little is known regarding the horizontal variability of MP within sea ice and how the underlying water body affects MP composition during sea ice growth. Here we show that sea ice MP has no uniform polymer composition and that, depending on the growth region and drift paths of the sea ice, unique MP patterns can be observed in different sea ice horizons. Thus even in remote regions such as the Arctic Ocean, certain MP indicate the presence of localized sources. Increasing exploitation of Arctic resources will likely lead to a higher MP load in the Arctic sea ice and will enhance the release of MP in the areas of strong seasonal sea ice melt and the outflow gateways.

Concepts: Canada, Ocean, Arctic Ocean, Arctic, Arctic Circle, Arctic shrinkage, Sea ice, Polar ice packs


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


Permafrost in the Arctic is thawing, exposing large carbon and nitrogen stocks for decomposition. Gaseous carbon release from Arctic soils due to permafrost thawing is known to be substantial, but growing evidence suggests that Arctic soils may also be relevant sources of nitrous oxide (N2O). Here we show that N2O emissions from subarctic peatlands increase as the permafrost thaws. In our study, the highest postthaw emissions occurred from bare peat surfaces, a typical landform in permafrost peatlands, where permafrost thaw caused a fivefold increase in emissions (0.56 ± 0.11 vs. 2.81 ± 0.6 mg N2O m(-2) d(-1)). These emission rates match those from tropical forest soils, the world’s largest natural terrestrial N2O source. The presence of vegetation, known to limit N2O emissions in tundra, did decrease (by ∼90%) but did not prevent thaw-induced N2O release, whereas waterlogged conditions suppressed the emissions. We show that regions with high probability for N2O emissions cover one-fourth of the Arctic. Our results imply that the Arctic N2O budget will depend strongly on moisture changes, and that a gradual deepening of the active layer will create a strong noncarbon climate change feedback.

Concepts: Oxygen, Climate, Soil, Nitrogen, Nitrous oxide, Arctic, Greenhouse gas, Peat


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


The Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus), an iconic species of the Arctic Seas, grows slowly and reaches >500 centimeters (cm) in total length, suggesting a life span well beyond those of other vertebrates. Radiocarbon dating of eye lens nuclei from 28 female Greenland sharks (81 to 502 cm in total length) revealed a life span of at least 272 years. Only the smallest sharks (220 cm or less) showed signs of the radiocarbon bomb pulse, a time marker of the early 1960s. The age ranges of prebomb sharks (reported as midpoint and extent of the 95.4% probability range) revealed the age at sexual maturity to be at least 156 ± 22 years, and the largest animal (502 cm) to be 392 ± 120 years old. Our results show that the Greenland shark is the longest-lived vertebrate known, and they raise concerns about species conservation.

Concepts: Species, Arctic Ocean, Arctic, Shark, Greenland shark, Somniosus, Pacific sleeper shark, Hákarl


Rising temperatures in the Arctic Ocean region are responsible for changes such as reduced ice cover, permafrost thawing, and increased river discharge, which, together, alter nutrient and carbon cycles over the vast Arctic continental shelf. We show that the concentration of radium-228, sourced to seawater through sediment-water exchange processes, has increased substantially in surface waters of the central Arctic Ocean over the past decade. A mass balance model for 228Ra suggests that this increase is due to an intensification of shelf-derived material inputs to the central basin, a source that would also carry elevated concentrations of dissolved organic carbon and nutrients. Therefore, we suggest that significant changes in the nutrient, carbon, and trace metal balances of the Arctic Ocean are underway, with the potential to affect biological productivity and species assemblages in Arctic surface waters.

Concepts: Water, Water pollution, Atlantic Ocean, Nitrogen, Canada, Ocean, Arctic Ocean, Arctic


Polar bears (PBs) are superbly adapted to the extreme Arctic environment and have become emblematic of the threat to biodiversity from global climate change. Their divergence from the lower-latitude brown bear provides a textbook example of rapid evolution of distinct phenotypes. However, limited mitochondrial and nuclear DNA evidence conflicts in the timing of PB origin as well as placement of the species within versus sister to the brown bear lineage. We gathered extensive genomic sequence data from contemporary polar, brown, and American black bear samples, in addition to a 130,000- to 110,000-y old PB, to examine this problem from a genome-wide perspective. Nuclear DNA markers reflect a species tree consistent with expectation, showing polar and brown bears to be sister species. However, for the enigmatic brown bears native to Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago, we estimate that not only their mitochondrial genome, but also 5-10% of their nuclear genome, is most closely related to PBs, indicating ancient admixture between the two species. Explicit admixture analyses are consistent with ancient splits among PBs, brown bears and black bears that were later followed by occasional admixture. We also provide paleodemographic estimates that suggest bear evolution has tracked key climate events, and that PB in particular experienced a prolonged and dramatic decline in its effective population size during the last ca. 500,000 years. We demonstrate that brown bears and PBs have had sufficiently independent evolutionary histories over the last 4-5 million years to leave imprints in the PB nuclear genome that likely are associated with ecological adaptation to the Arctic environment.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Evolution, Genome, Arctic, Bear, American Black Bear, Polar bear


Regional declines in polar bear (Ursus maritimus) populations have been attributed to changing sea ice conditions, but with limited information on the causative mechanisms. By simultaneously measuring field metabolic rates, daily activity patterns, body condition, and foraging success of polar bears moving on the spring sea ice, we found that high metabolic rates (1.6 times greater than previously assumed) coupled with low intake of fat-rich marine mammal prey resulted in an energy deficit for more than half of the bears examined. Activity and movement on the sea ice strongly influenced metabolic demands. Consequently, increases in mobility resulting from ongoing and forecasted declines in and fragmentation of sea ice are likely to increase energy demands and may be an important factor explaining observed declines in body condition and survival.

Concepts: Arctic, Pinniped, Bear, Carnivore, Polar bear, Arctic shrinkage, Sea ice, Marine mammal


The skeletal remains of a small bear (Protarctos abstrusus) were collected at the Beaver Pond fossil site in the High Arctic (Ellesmere I., Nunavut). This mid-Pliocene deposit has also yielded 12 other mammals and the remains of a boreal-forest community. Phylogenetic analysis reveals this bear to be basal to modern bears. It appears to represent an immigration event from Asia, leaving no living North American descendants. The dentition shows only modest specialization for herbivory, consistent with its basal position within Ursinae. However, the appearance of dental caries suggest a diet high in fermentable-carbohydrates. Fossil plants remains, including diverse berries, suggests that, like modern northern black bears, P. abstrusus may have exploited a high-sugar diet in the fall to promote fat accumulation and facilitate hibernation. A tendency toward a sugar-rich diet appears to have arisen early in Ursinae, and may have played a role in allowing ursine lineages to occupy cold habitats.

Concepts: Dental caries, Arctic, Carnivora, Pliocene, Bear, American Black Bear, Hibernation, Polar bear


Arctic sea ice is retreating rapidly, raising prospects of a future ice-free Arctic Ocean during summer. Since climate-model simulations of the sea-ice loss differ substantially, we here use a robust linear relationship between monthly-mean September sea-ice area and cumulative CO2 emissions to infer the future evolution of Arctic summer sea ice directly from the observational record. The observed linear relationship implies a sustained loss of 3 ± 0.3 m(2) of September sea-ice area per metric ton of CO2 emission. Based on this sensitivity, Arctic sea-ice will be lost throughout September for an additional 1000 Gt of CO2 emissions. Most models show a lower sensitivity, which is possibly linked to an underestimation of the modeled increase in incoming longwave radiation and of the modeled Transient Climate Response.

Concepts: Ocean, Arctic Ocean, Arctic, Emission standard, Global warming, Arctic shrinkage, Sea ice, Polar ice packs