Note: Sun worshippers or those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder may not want to read this post.
For those who are still with me: As a native of the Bay Area, I love fog, rain and snow. So I jumped at the opportunity to escape from my sedentary freelance outpost in Boulder, Colo., and fly to Norway’s northern city of Tromsø in mid-January. I went to attend the the Arctic Frontiers conference, which focused on how climate change is altering the ecosystems, economics and geopolitics of the region. Tromsø, about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is a coastal city of 60,000 residents. In mid-January the sun barely peeks above the horizon. On a rare clear day, the sunrise blends stunningly into sunset. The darkness, snow, and rain hardly deter outdoor enthusiasts; many people commute to work on Nordic trails. (Later, while Nordic skiing in Oslo, I spotted a pacifier-sucking toddler zipping towards me on the trail.)
I probably would not have attended the conference had the Norwegian government not offered to pay the way for a few non-Norwegian journalists to attend. It wasn’t a fellowship per se. The invitation was precipitated by my having met the conference organizer and some Norwegian journalists in Tromsø in June 2011. I was squeamish about going on a “junket” of sorts. But I’m a freelancer, and I figured a magazine or newspaper wouldn’t pay for a Norway-based assignment. Having covered climate change and its impacts on the U.S. Interior West and other regions, I was keen on learning more about how the changing climate affects marine ecosystems, human communities and geopolitics in the North Atlantic Arctic region.
Despite the sweet deal, I didn’t want to take time away from working unless I could secure a paid assignment. I pitched some ideas to Popular Science and happily secured an assignment to write a series of articles inspired by the Arctic conference. (The three-article package was titled “Dispatches from the Arctic,” and you can read it here.)
I learned from scientists in Norway about how various species of fish are changing their migration and distribution behaviors in response to warming oceans and melting ice. The shifts are already creating unlikely bedfellows, competitors, winners and losers. A big unknown—not just to me but to marine scientists themselves—is how fast, in what direction, and to what effect the fish—Atlantic cod, mackerel, capelin, others—w ill migrate from their home turf.
Paul Wassman, an Arctic biologist at the University of Tromsø, put it succinctly: “Fish will only travel where they can find food.” That message may sound axiomatic, but just how and why they do that is not clearly understood. The uncertainty points to food—especially phytoplankton, the photosynthesizing microorganisms that live in the upper sunlit layer of the ocean and make up the core diet for fish and zooplankton. Both scientists and fisheries are keen on following the trail of fish, which follow phytoplankton, which follow sunlight. Sunlight is increasingly peeking through the thawing ice farther north in the Arctic, making it possible for phytoplankton to flourish, though not enough to attract fish species on a commercial scale. The seas around the Arctic Ocean are estimated to host at least 20 percent of all the fish in the world’s seas.
While the Arctic seas are extremely productive, they are also very stratified, meaning there’s not much vertical mixing of nutrients in the ocean. Warming surface water temperature and melting ice result in stratification. As warming and thawing continue scientists expect the water column to be more stratified, which will prevent nutrients from percolating up to the surface.
That process, according to Wassman and other scientists, means there won’t be enough food in the Arctic Ocean, at least not enough to lure a commercially harvestable amount of fish.
I’m back now, in land-locked Colorado. My bags are unpacked and the articles are published. And I’m glad I went: I’m more curious about what kind of lives the cod, salmon and other fish I buy at Whole Foods lived before ending up on ice, and what their descendants’ lives will look like. And as for work? I’ve added new interests, questions and discoveries, to my freelance beats.