Decreasing Arctic Sea Ice Through the Eyes of Spectacled Eiders

Arctic sea ice is decreasing due to carbon emissions and greenhouse gases, with rates of decline between 2001-2005 at 8.6%. Ice Mass Buoys have been used to gather data suggesting that the sea ice thickness is decreasing twice as fast as sea ice extent is. Models predict that sea ice is ever declining though rates vary model to model.


Arctic sea ice is decreasing due to carbon emissions and greenhouse gases, with rates of decline between 2001-2005 at 8.6%. Ice Mass Buoys have been used to gather data suggesting that the sea ice thickness is decreasing twice as fast as sea ice extent is. Models predict that sea ice is ever declining though rates vary model to model. Organisms well adapted to the Arctic environment are going to be impacted by this change. Spectacled eiders (Somateria fischeri) depend on sea ice, particularly at their wintering grounds near St. Lawrence Island. Spectacled eider populations have been declining since 1970 and have been listed as “threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain this decline. On the nesting grounds, lead poisoning may be a cause of mortality, as well as ice leads closing in the winter. The spectacled eider is an apex predator, feeding on the benthos below polynyas in the wintertime. Increasing ocean temperatures are causing spectacled eiders to be faced with a regime shift as pelagic secondary consumers increase in habitat range. Increased shipping and oil also could have negative effects on spectacled eiders as the potential for spill hazards increase. Mitigation efforts for the spectacled eider include migrating northwards with the declining sea ice extent and a series of policies and restrictions to reduce shipping and oil drilling activities in the wintering grounds of spectacled eiders.


The spectacled eider (Somateria fischeri) is a seabird that is usually found near and around St. Lawrence Island during the winter and is currently listed as threatened on the Endangered Species list (Lovvorn et al., 2003). Spectacled eider populations have been decreasing since the 1970’s (Richman & Lovvorn, 2003). Specifically, in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, which counts for 5% of all breeders, the population declined 96% from 48,000 pairs to 2,000 pairs (Richman & Lovvorn, 2003). This drop in population was attributed to hunting, lead poisoning, habitat loss, and ecosystem change (Richman & Lovvorn, 2003). During the summer the spectacled eider breeds on the North Slope, Yukon Delta, and in Arctic Russia (Petersen & Douglas, 1999). In the winter, the spectacled eiders converge to use breaks in the sea ice, such as polynyas or leads, to feed (ADF&G, 2014). Declines in sea ice as a result of climate change will affect the wintering season of the spectacled eider.

Future Sea Ice Estimates

Total Arctic sea ice (the combined total of seasonal and perennial ice) has declined due to increased amounts of carbon emissions and greenhouse gasses that are raising the surface air temperature around the globe (NSIDC, n.d.). Maslowski et al. (2012) states that the rate of sea ice melting has been increasing gradually over the course of the last 30 years. The rate of perennial sea ice melting was 6.5% per decade between 1979 to 2001, and then increased to 8.6% per decade when the trend extends to 2005 (Maslowski et al., 2012). By September of 2007 the rate of decrease was 10.2% per decade and has increased since then (Maslowski et al., 2012).

As the trend extended into September of 2011, the rate of perennial sea ice decrease was 12.0% per decade (Maslowski et al., 2012). The sea ice extent has dipped below the average extent from 1979-2001 to less than 40% of that from September 2007, and has been below the 1979-2001 average ever since (Maslowski et al., 2012).

Based on satellite data, the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC, n.d.) was able to identify the changes in the extent of Arctic sea ice (Figure 1). The extent of Arctic sea ice in 1980 on September 22nd was 7.699 million km2 in area. We analyzed the data from 10 year increments to calculate the changes that have taken place.

Figure 1 : Data of daily measurements for 10 year increments from the NSIDC on sea ice extent shown in Million km (NSIDC, n.d.).

Our calculations are shown in Table 1. The total decrease from 1980 to 2010 in sea ice extent is 3.067 million km2. If sea ice were to decline at a “worst case scenario rate” calculated from the difference between 1980 and 2010 and extrapolated over time, it would equate to a loss of approximately 0.1022 million km2 per year. By the year 2050 of this scenario, the extent of the sea ice would reach only 0.5440 million km2, which is only 7% of the total area covered in sea ice in 1980. However, if sea ice were to decline at its current average rate of 3% per decade, the extent of the sea ice by 2050 would be 4.076 million km2, which is only 53% of sea ice area in 1980 (NSIDC, n.d.).

Table 1 : Data collected from the NSIDC on past sea ice extent as well as possible future scenarios from calculations stated by NSIDC and increments of the greatest amount of decrease seen between the 10 year intervals. Column Current Rate is declining at 3% per decade while the column Worst Case is declining at 0.1022 Million km^2 per year.

Because the models project wide variations in rate of decline, this makes it difficult to project changes in the specific areas of sea ice used by spectacled eiders. However, they all show a decline in sea ice extent, as does the historical evidence. Thus, we can conclude that there is a decline in sea ice regardless of rate.

Along with the decrease in sea ice extent, what has been even more severe is the decrease of sea ice thickness (Maslowski et al., 2012). Data compiled by Maslowski et al. (2012) show that between 1979 and 2002, the decrease of sea ice thickness is more than double that of the decrease of sea ice extent. The approximate percentage of decrease for thickness during that time period was 44% versus 16% for sea ice extent (Maslowski et al., 2012).

Life History of Spectacled Eiders

Spectacled eiders are a seabird that use and rely on the presence of sea ice during winter months (ADF&G, 2014). Until 1999, the at-sea distribution of spectacled eiders was largely undocumented. In 1999, implanted spectacled eiders with satellite transmitters to find that the breeding grounds for the spectacled eiders were in three main areas: The North Slope of Alaska, Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Alaska, and Arctic Russia (Petersen & Douglas, 1999).

Richman and Lovvorn (2003) show that during the breeding season, 90% of the total population nests in Siberia. Another 5% of the total spectacled eider population nests on the North Slope of Alaska. Both of these populations are stable. However, in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, which accounts for 5% of all breeders, the population declined 96% from 48,000 pairs to 2,000 pairs between 1970 and the early 1990’s (Richman and Lovvorn, 2003). In the nesting season, eiders forage in ponds and eat aquatic insects, crustaceans, mollusks and vegetation such as grasses, berries and seeds (Stehn et al., 1993).

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (2014), shows that spectacled eiders start arriving at their breeding grounds in late May and early June. Eiders prefer to nest at sites on islands and peninsulas on tundra lakes. Between May and July, females will lay, on average 3-9 eggs. Predators for the new eggs and ducklings include mink, Arctic fox, red fox, gulls, and jaegers. Females and the ducklings travel to the wintering grounds in late summer. These new ducklings will travel to the sea and remain there for 2-3 years before their first breeding attempt. Males molt in Mechigmenskiy Bay or the eastern Chukotka Peninsula in Russia. Females molt in eastern Norton Sound if they have nested in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta or in Ledyard Bay. After they finish molting, they will travel out to the Bering Sea for the winter (ADF&G, 2014).

Winter Grounds

During the winter, the spectacled eiders use leads and polynyas to dive down for the mollusks and crustaceans in the shallow waters of the Bering Sea. These wintering grounds are crucial to their survival (Stehn et al., 1993). Estimates suggest that over 333,000 total spectacled eiders flock in the Bering Sea during their wintering season (Petersen & Douglas, 1999).

According to Lovvorn et al. (2003), from late December to mid April, the only known wintering area for the spectacled eider population is in the polynya south of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. All spectacled eiders, both the Russian and American populations, winter at the St. Lawrence Island polynya. They pack so tightly into the leads that the motion they make to keep afloat stops the ice from forming. Lovvorn et al. (2003) proposed that this behavior could be a method of reducing the possibility of major starvation die-offs (Lovvorn et al., 2003).

Polynyas are windows into the rich nutrients found just beneath the ice. Polynyas form every year as the sea ice edge travels southward as the ocean freezes (Sheffield, 2014). They form where the surface of the ocean is exposed due to one of two events (Sheffield, 2014).

Strong, offshore winds can force ice cover away from the coast and combine with wave action to create an opening in the sea ice cover (Winsor and Biork, 2000). The other method of polynya generation occurs when warm water upwells to the surface and breaks through the halocline to melt the ice (Winsor and Biork, 2000). Marine creatures, such as the spectacled eider, often rely on these polynyas as a kind of biologically active oasis in the middle of a winter setting where most ecosystems remain inactive (Sheffield, 2014).

The St. Lawrence Island Polynya forms every year. This is a prominent polynya that extends 20-40 km south of the island and presides over a continental shelf that is anywhere from 30-70m deep (Grebmeier & Dunton, 2000; Sheffield, 2014). The St. Lawrence Island Polynya is specifically formed by prevailing northerly winds that force ice away from the southern shoreline (Grebmeier & Dunton, 2000). The island itself prevents ice north of the island from occupying the water south of the island (Grebmeier & Dunton, 2000). This is a critical location for the spectacled eider during the winter (Stabeno et al., n.d.).

The St. Lawrence Island polynya provides crucial access to the benthic community which is fed by the rich currents such as the Anadyr Current shown in Figure 2 (Grebmeier & Dunton, 2000). This current advects nutrients and plankton from the coast into the center of the Bering Sea (Grebmeier & Dunton, 2000).

In combination with the upwelled shelf water, these nutrient-rich waters increase the productivity of the polynyas in the summertime which is responsible for the productive benthic community that feeds the eiders in the winter (Piatt and Springer, 2003).

Figure 2: Siberia and Alaska are pictured and between them are various ocean surface currents. Such currents like the Alaskan Stream and the Bering Slope Current transport water and nutrients vast distances. The Anadyr Current is the series of arrows traveling northwest just above the Bering Slope Current. The arrows themselves represent currents with mean speeds >50 cm/s. Depth contours indicate 1000 m isobath and in the Bering Sea the 200 m isobath. Source: NOAA

The nutrients underneath the ice are normally unable to be used due to the ice cover reflecting and blocking solar radiation from beginning phytoplankton blooms (Grebmeier & Dunton, 2000). Solar rays are able to reach the water’s surface at the polynya, and phytoplankton can bloom (Grebmeier & Dunton, 2000). The Anadyr Current is subsequently responsible for a large community of benthic invertebrates, marine mammals and sea birds like the spectacled eider (Piatt & Springer, 2003).

Polynyas and the Bering Shelf Food Web

The winter feeding ground of the spectacled eiders, the St. Lawrence Island Polynya, offers the ideal feeding opportunity for these seabirds (Grebmeier & Dunton, 2000). The spectacled eider is a benthic-level predator, diving anywhere from 40 to 70 meters to reach the seafloor where they feed on bottom-dwelling invertebrates (Richman & Lovvorn, 2003). The spectacled eiders’ prey feeds primarily on phytoplankton and zooplankton, that fall from the pelagic zone to the benthos.

Figure 3: This figure depicts the Arctic marine ecosystem that relies on an edge of ice cover. The numbers denote different creatures, most notably numbers 1, 2, 3, and 13. Numbers 1 and 2 are primary producers that begin the food chain both within the ocean and underneath the sea ice. Number 3 is the zooplankton that consume the phytoplankton. It is the zooplankton that feed the productive benthos. Number 13 is the position of a generic seabird but represents a spectacled eider. Mollusks and bivalves of the bottom are food for the spectacled eider. (Grebmeier & Dunton, 2000)

 The Arctic food web is driven by 1) the presence of marine snow, or the dead biomatter that falls to the seafloor (numbers 2 & 3 in Figure 3) and 2) the penetration of sunlight into the water column crucial for initial primary productivity (numbers 1 & 2 Figure 3) (Sheffield, 2014). In this ecosystem, because of the shallow water over the continental shelf, there is a lack of pelagic secondary consumers (Grebmeier & Dunton, 2000). The phytoplankton and zooplankton are able to live out their life spans and die becoming marine snow (Sheffield, 2014).

Ice formation plays a critical role in the formation of this benthic community. When the shallow regions of the North Bering Sea, through the Bering Strait and up into the Chukchi Sea, freeze over, it creates a calm area protected from the rough waves and harsh winds (Sheffield, 2014). With no wind-driven ocean mixing occurring, the marine snow falls nearly unhindered until it reaches the seafloor (Sheffield, 2014). Crustaceans and mollusks then feed on the abundance of detritus (Figure 3), a significant source of nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon (Grebmeier & Dunton, 2000). This benthic community provides food for the top level apex predators such as seabirds like the spectacled eider as well as marine mammals like the walrus and gray whale (number 4 in Figure 3) (Grebmeier & Dunton, 2000).

Direct Effects on Thinning Sea Ice on Spectacled Eider Populations

The decreasing Arctic sea ice may or may not have a direct impact on the spectacled eider population. The sea ice extent of the Bering Sea reached, on average, a latitude of 58˚ N during years 2001-2009 (Ecosystem, n.d.). The St. Lawrence Island is located at 63˚ N, approximately 450km north of the leading ice edge (Stabeno, n.d.). With a rate of 3% sea ice decline per decade the current polynya conditions are unlikely to be affected in the near future (Laidre & Heide-Jorgensen, 2005). While presence of open water is critical within ice packs, a fully open Bering Sea would have negative effects on the food web that supports the spectacled eider.

One possible adaptation for the spectacled eider is to move northward with the sea ice extent. This could benefit the eiders by allowing them to maintain their feeding habits and remain in their natural feeding grounds. However, moving northward with the sea ice extent could lead to some major issues for the spectacled eider, including displacement from oil drilling sites. Other benthic consumers like the gray whale, have adapted by feeding further north in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas (Grebmeier, 2006). However, spectacled eiders have no record of similar adaptations (Grebmeier, 2006). The spectacled eiders have been declining and have recently been stabilized but still remain listed as threatened because the stabilization is only recent and prone to become disrupted again.

This disruption could take the form of a major chance die-off. We know that the congregation of all spectacled eider in the St. Lawrence Polynya and nearby leads in the ice makes them more vulnerable to die-offs caused by these openings freezing over (Lovvorn et al., 2003). Spectacled eiders use leads to swim in and feed from, but when the opening closes the sea ducks sit on the ice waiting for the ice to open. For example, a major lead closed in 1968 and approximately 100,000 king eiders starved between 1970 and the early 1990’s (Lovvorn et al., 2003).

Indirect Effects due to Climate Change

Colder ocean temperatures have previously been the factor that has reduced the presence of pelagic secondary consumers over the shelf (Grebmeier & Dunton, 2000). In 1976-1977 there was an oceanic regime shift toward warmer conditions in the Bering Sea (Richman & Lovvorn, 2003). There also was a lesser shift in 1989, but still with warmer temperatures than usual. This warming trend is continuing and these regime shifts cause widespread alterations in the Bering Sea food web (Richman & Lovvorn, 2003). The recession of ice and warmer ocean temperature allows pelagic fish to move further north. Grebmeier (2006) says fish population surveys taken just south of St. Lawrence island in the fall of 2002, 2003, and 2004 have shown an increase in the number of pollock. The surveys extending northward found a large population of juvenile pink salmon, indicating that they are now breeding in rivers that empty north of the Bering Sea (Grebmeier, 2006).

These fish species are examples of the pelagic consumers that prevent the fall of nutrients to the benthic level, thus decreasing the productivity of the benthic environment that the apex predators of the northern Bering Sea, including walrus, gray whales, and seabirds, depend on for the majority of their food (Grebmeier, 2006). This invasion of pollock into the spectacled eiders’ winter feeding ground could be a density-dependent limiting factor for the eider population. Because the pollock feed on the zooplankton in the pelagic zone, the amount of marine snow that falls to the bottom decreases (Grebmeier & Dunton, 2000).

At the same time as the temperatures create an optimal pelagic environment more usable by fish (Grebmeier, 2006), the absence of sea ice further changes the spectacled eiders’ habitat by changing nutrient availability. Less ice coverage creates more open water allowing harsh winds to stir up the sea, keeping the phytoplankton and zooplankton from falling to the bottom and suspending them in the upper water column (Sheffield, 2014). The marine snow is unable to feed the benthic communities causing declines in spectacled eider prey populations (Grebmeier & Dunton, 2000).

Another indirect effect of decreasing sea ice is the increase in shipping, which could increase the chance for oil spills. Spectacled eiders are at their wintering grounds in the months December through to mid April (Reich et al., 2014). This is when they could potentially be harmed by light diesel. According to Reich et al. (2014), light diesel has the highest risk of all possible oil contaminants (Reich et al., 2014). An analysis released by NOAA on November 18, 2014 outlined specific risks of oil spills and future projections unique to the Norton Sound and St. Lawrence Island area (Reich et al., 2014).This study found that the risk of oil spills in the St. Lawrence Island area during the spectacled eiders’ wintering season is shown to increase from .4 to .5 in number of incidents per year (Reich et al., 2014).

In addition to increased shipping the Mineral Management Service (2006) states less sea ice could mean an increase in oil drilling . Along with oil drilling comes increased vessel and air traffic for the purposes of oil site exploration. A study conducted on Herschel Island in August of 1973 found that seabirds were disturbed by low altitude flights. With aircraft, especially helicopters, being widely used to scout out the most favorable oil-drilling sites, there could be a real effect on the spectacled eider population molting in the Ledyard Bay Critical Habitat Area. The Mineral Management Service (2006) estimates the number of helicopter flights could range from 90 to 270 per year (Mineral Management Service, 2006).

In addition to aircraft traffic, shipping traffic as a result of both increased oil drilling and trade using the Northwest Passage can have similar effects to the population of spectacled eiders (Mineral Management Service, 2006). A study conducted off shore in the North Sea, which measured the behavior and flush distances of various sea birds, showed that oncoming ships cause displacement and can change flock behavior (Schwemmer et al., 2011). While they didn’t study spectacled eiders, common eiders were one of the subjects tested and were shown to flush at distances up to 250 meters from the vessel (Schwemmer et al., 2011).

Impact Mitigation

We are aware that humans are partly, if not mostly responsible for the global decline of sea ice, and we acknowledge that this issue must be addressed. However, in this paper we will introduce solutions for spectacled eiders further than reducing sea ice decline. To address the issue of spectacled eider disturbance in the oil drilling sale areas, we support implementing proposed restrictions on exploration and delineation activities near the molting grounds during molting season. The Mineral Management Service said that in 2006, an altitude limit had been proposed to solve this issue. Their proposed restriction would limit the flight altitude of aircraft flying over critical habitat areas of the spectacled eider and other species to no less than 1500 feet. For vessels, a similar restriction had been proposed to limit vessel activity in Ledyard Bay spectacled eider critical habitat area (Mineral Management Service, 2006).

Protecting breeding habitat may be critical to maintaining population stability if oceanic conditions are impacting winter habitat. Oil drilling occurring in spectacled eider nesting grounds can cause major dislocation for eiders. According to Mineral Management Service (2006), one oil drilling facility can affect upwards of 235 spectacled eiders, displacing them and causing them to struggle to obtain food (Mineral Management Service, 2006). We support restrictions on oil drilling to not take place in areas defined by NOAA as critical habitat areas (Fish and Wildlife Service, 2001). These areas include the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Norton Sound, Ledyard Bay, and between the St. Lawrence and St. Matthew islands (Fish and Wildlife Service, 2001).

One reason for the decline in the spectacled eider population in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta could have been lead contamination (Trust et al., 2000). Flint et al. (1997) predicted that 25-37% of the spectacled eider breeding population were exposed to lead, with 50% of the female breeding population exposed to lead. This high percentage of the breeding population exposed to lead likely means that their ducklings would also have traces of lead. Based on work with other duck species, the exposure of nesting females and young birds to lead may result in a lower survival rate during winter, as well as a possibility of reduced fertility (Flint et al., 1997). The long-term effect of lead contamination of the spectacled eiders are unknown; however, the present ban on lead shot should have a smaller role in present and future population trends (Flint et al., 1997).

We think these restrictions will benefit the spectacled eider population and minimize disturbance. However, setting these limitations may have socioeconomic impacts, such as reduction in oil production, increased safety risks, and increased costs. The decreased oil production increases our dependence on foreign oil. The safety risks include complicated flight plans for aircraft in the event of emergencies and forcing other activities to occur during unfavorable flying conditions such as bad weather. The increased costs then encompass more expensive aircraft fuel bills, loss of employee hours spent traveling circuitous routes, and enforcing critical habitat areas while increasing public awareness.


Because not much is known about the spectacled eider and the lack of knowledge regarding the effects of climate change, continuous monitoring is required to ensure the future of these seabirds. Continued use of the satellite tracking of spectacled eiders to determine their migration routes should be implemented. Moreover, we need to continue and improve upon models that predict changes in sea ice conditions. According to Cosimo et al. (2008), our current system of monitoring the sea ice extent has been a system of satellites deployed between 1978 and 2002. We currently have satellites that use passive microwave imagery to monitor sea ice extent (Cosimo et al., 2008). Ice Mass Buoys are small structures that use sonar pingers to measure the thickness and mass of the ice (Polashenski et al., 2011). This system can be used to accurately measure the thickness of the ice as well as the amount of snow cover on top of the ice (Polashenski et al., 2011). To improve the models we should continue ocean monitoring to build a greater database of historical sea ice changes and use those readings to predict future ocean conditions.


How will spectacled eiders react to the decline of sea ice? That is the question we have attempted to solve. With sea ice extent declining at an average rate of 3% per decade and thickness decreasing by 44% over 23 years, we will likely see a change in the spectacled eiders feeding habits and winter habitat (Maslowski et al., 2012).

Spectacled eiders use polynyas during their wintering season to gain access to benthic food sources. This system is vulnerable to the effects of climate change as pelagic secondary consumers move further north and compete with current apex predators including the spectacled eider. Also, the wintering, breeding and molting grounds are susceptible to disturbances caused by oil drilling and increased shipping. To address the issue of eiders suffering from habitat change and ecosystem shifts, we have proposed three major changes that we as humans could do to help mitigate the effects of sea ice decline on the spectacled eider. We believe that with these mitigation efforts the spectacled eiders will continue to have stable populations even in the face of climate change.


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Decreasing Arctic Sea Ice Through the Eyes of Spectacled Eiders

Arctic sea ice is decreasing due to carbon emissions and greenhouse gases, with rates of decline between 2001-2005 at 8.6%. Ice Mass Buoys have been used to gather data suggesting that the sea ice thickness is decreasing twice as fast as sea ice extent is. Models predict that sea ice is ever declining though rates vary model to model.

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