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Ecol Appl. 2008 Mar;18(2):309-20.

Sea ice retreat alters the biogeography of the Bering Sea continental shelf.

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Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and the Oceans, P.O. Box 354235, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98115 USA.


Seasonal ice cover creates a pool of cold bottom water on the eastern Bering Sea continental shelf each winter. The southern edge of this cold pool, which defines the ecotone between arctic and subarctic communities, has retreated approximately 230 km northward since the early 1980s. Bottom trawl surveys of fish and invertebrates in the southeastern Bering Sea (1982-2006) show a coincident reorganization in community composition by latitude. Survey catches show community-wide northward distribution shifts, and the area formerly covered by the cold pool has seen increases in total biomass, species richness, and average trophic level as subarctic fauna have colonized newly favorable habitats. Warming climate has immediate management implications, as 57% of variability in commercial snow crab (Chionoecetes opilio) catch is explained by winter sea ice extent. Several measures of community distribution and structure show linear relationships with bottom temperature, suggesting warming climate as the primary cause of changing biogeography. However, residual variability in distribution not explained by climate shows a strong temporal trend, suggesting that internal community dynamics also contribute to changing biogeography. Variability among taxa in their response to temperature was not explained by commercial status or life history traits, suggesting that species-specific responses to future warming will be difficult to predict.

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