A New Barents Sea – Researchers Witness Clear Changes with Significant Consequences

The Barents Sea, as we knew it, is no more, according to a new scientific publication from Norway's largest collaborative project: The Nansen Legacy. The ice-free southern part of the Barents Sea has been well-mapped and understood, while the northern part, covered in ice during winter, stands out as one of the polar regions where climate and ecosystem changes are most pronounced.

An analysis of the physical, chemical, and biological conditions in this part of the Barents Sea sheds light on extensive changes over the past decades. The physical environment in the area experiences significant seasonal variability, with partial ice cover in winter and spring, contrasting mainly open waters in summer and fall. Observations over several decades reveal warming air and ocean temperatures, diminishing sea ice cover, weakened ocean stratification, and changes in water chemistry and the ecosystem.

“We see that the northern Barents Sea is affected by a warmer climate. Some more southern species can survive further north than before, but we still observe an Arctic ecosystem in the northern Barents Sea,” says project leader and professor Marit Reigstad (UiT – The Arctic University of Norway), a co-author in the new publication that came out in the scientific journal Elementa – Science of the Anthropocene.

Toktbilde frå Arven etter Nansen 2021, med forskningsfartøyet Kronprins Haakon i bakgrunnen. Forskere arbeider på isen med lite eller intet snødekke på. (Se bilde lenger ned for å sammenligne) Sebastian Gerland, Norsk polarinstitutt

Picture from a Nansen Legacy cruise in 2021. The RV Kronprins Haakon in the background. Researchers working on the sea ice with no to little snow cover on the ice. Photo: Sebastian Gerland, Norwegian Polar Institute.

Bilde fra tokt i 1999 med forskningsfartøyet Lance. Her er det mer snødekke på isen. Sebastian Gerland, Norsk polarinstitutt

Picture from a cruise in 1999 with the RV Lance. The snow is more prominent and visual then the left picture.  Photo: Sebastian Gerland, Norwegian Polar Institute. 

A changed Arctic

The physical changes in the Barents Sea, with warmer air and sea and less ice, extend far beyond local significance and impact the sea further into the Arctic. These changes play a central role in terms of water and air mass transport and how the sea ice moves between adjacent sea areas and internally in the Barents Sea.

“The changes we have seen and studied are significant for other Arctic regions as well,” says researcher Sebastian Gerland (Norwegian Polar Institute), the lead author of the new publication.

These changes affect the accessibility of the region and, consequently, the level of human activity desired in the area. They also impact the ecosystem and, therefore, the economy, especially in fisheries.


A Changed Arctic Requires More Monitoring

Although several of these changes are now monitored and quantified, there is still limited understanding and data, especially from field observations in winter months when sample collections are challenging due to ice, darkness, and cold. Understanding the interaction between physical and biogeochemical drivers, as well as ecosystem response and complex feedback processes, requires further attention.

“The research on the development of the Barents Sea not only provides insights into the region’s dynamics, but also points towards the need for improved understanding of climate change and its effects globally. What these changes mean for the future is an exciting chapter unfolding beneath the Arctic horizon,” concludes Gerland.

Bildet fra tokt 2021. Her ser vi en varmeutveksling mellom havet og atmosfære fra 2021 Sebastian Gerland, Norsk polarinstitutt

Heat exchange between the Ocean and Atmosphere. Picture taken from Cruise in 2021. Photo: Sebastian Gerland, Norwegian Polar Institute.