What climate change is doing to the Arctic Ocean

10 Mar 2021 | 3 mins

This article by Daniel Merino and Gemma Ware, features Dr Karen Filbee-Dexter from UWA’s School of Biological Sciences and originally appeared in The Conversation on 4 March 2021.

In this week’s episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast, two experts explain how melting ice in the far north is bringing more light to the Arctic Ocean and what this means for the species that live there. And we hear from a team of archaeologists on their new research in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge that found evidence of just how adaptable early humans were to the changing environment.

Every summer, the sea ice in the Arctic melts – but it’s melting more and more each year. In September 2020, the ice covered 3.74 million square kilometres in the Arctic. That might sound like a lot, but it was actually the second smallest measurement ever – and roughly half of what was measured in 1980. This dramatic loss is because the Arctic is warming two to three times faster than the rest of the planet.

Scientists are studying what climate change means for the various species that live in the Arctic Ocean. One of the things they’re looking at is light: as the sea ice shrinks, that means more light can get down to the depths, but also more ships can venture into the far north, bringing with them more artificial light.

We speak to two researchers who spend their time diving down into the ocean to study what this increase in light means. Karen Filbee-Dexter, research fellow in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Western Australia, talks to us about how the increase in sunlight is good news for the Arctic’s underwater kelp forests. “We’re already way into the climate change future along our Arctic coastlines,” she says, “so it’s not surprising that our ecosystems are responding because these changes are really dramatic and they’re noticeable.”

And Jørgen Berge, professor of Arctic marine ecology, at the University of Tromsø in Norway, says that even during the polar night, when the Sun doesn’t come up for months, light plays an important role. “The polar night is certainly not just dark. It’s actually all about different kinds of lights, both background illumination from the Sun, the aurora borealis, the Moon, also biological lights.” He explains his recent research which found out just how disruptive artificial light can be to the creatures that live in these ecosystems.

In our second story, we head to the warmer climes of the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, known as the birthplace of humanity. We speak to a team of researchers, Julio Mercader, professor of anthropology and archaeology at the University of Calgary in Canada, and Pastory Bushozi, director of Humanities Research Centre and Makarius Peter Itambu, lecturer in the College of Humanities, both at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, about their recent discoveries in the gorge. They found new evidence of just how adaptable early humans were to the changing environment around 2 million years ago.

And Laura Hood, politics editor and assistant editor at The Conversation in London, recommends a couple of stories by academics in the UK. 

The Conversation Weekly is produced by Mend Mariwany and Gemma Ware, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl.

News clips in this episode from EuronewsGlobal News and DW News

A transcript of this episode is available here.

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