The Impacts of Arctic Melt Connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans

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What would happen, if there was a major connection between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans? Would anything change at all? What would the human and animal impact be? The melting of ice caps in North America may answer a few of these questions. A team of researchers ponded that question in an article published in Global Change Biology.  

The Northwest Passage in the Arctic has been opened by melting ice for the first time in many years. The opening of the passage has invigorated businesses long spent hauling their goods by land or by air in the absence of a convenient sea route between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Now that there is an opening, many companies are seeking ways to use it efficiently to transport their goods.


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People aren’t the only things moving through the newly opened Northwest Passage. Animals that were once solely located in the Atlantic or the Pacific are now being seen in places they’ve never been spotted before. Sea animals as well as beasts of the land and air are going further than they’ve ever gone before, sometimes to the detriment of their host environment.

Modeled optimal September navigation routes for hypothetical ships seeking to cross the Arctic Ocean between the North Atlantic (Rotterdam, The Netherlands and St. John’s, Newfoundland) and the Pacific (Bering Strait) during consecutive years 2006–2015 and 2040–2059. Source: Smith and Stephenson, 2013.
Modeled optimal September navigation routes for hypothetical ships seeking to cross the Arctic Ocean between the North Atlantic (Rotterdam, The Netherlands and St. John’s, Newfoundland) and the Pacific (Bering Strait) during consecutive years 2006–2015 and 2040–2059. Source: Smith and Stephenson, 2013.

Pacific gray whales have been seen in the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean. The Manx shearwater, a bird native to the Atlantic, has now been seen flying along the Pacific coastline. Some experts estimate that nearly 75 species of animals have moved from their normal environments elsewhere, possibly because of the Northwest Passage.

Genetic diversity makes species stronger, but mixing different species can sometimes result in much more negative realities. For instance, the similarities between the Atlantic and Pacific gray whales allow them to mate, but their offspring may not be viable in the long run. Introducing a new species to an environment can also mean the spread of disease that could devastate the native species in the area. Although the Atlantic and the Pacific don’t seem that far apart in the grand scheme of the world, the different species that live in both places can be incredibly diverse.

Conservation will be affected by this movement of species as well. If animals move into international waters or are spotted in other countries it will be hard for scientists to cooperate to track the movement of these species into their new environments.

References

McKeon, C. S., Weber, M. X., Alter, S. E., Seavy, N. E., Crandall, E. D., Barshis, D. J., Fechter-Leggett, E. D. and Oleson, K. L. L. (2016), Melting barriers to faunal exchange across ocean basins. Glob Change Biol, 22: 465–473. doi:10.1111/gcb.13116

Smith, L. C., & Stephenson, S. R. (2013). New Trans-Arctic shipping routes navigable by midcenturyProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences110(13), E1191-E1195.


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