Okhotsk, Barents, Who Cares?

More people are familiar with the above brand of work and casual wear than know of the similarly named sea near the Arctic Circle. And many confuse the Barents and Bering Seas which are on opposite sides of the Arctic. So what?

Here’s the thing: This year’s NH sea ice extent (Arctic plus nearby seas) is down. And so we’re getting the warnings about the Arctic “death spiral” and starving polar bears. It turns out that most of the difference between this year and last comes from less ice in Okhotsk and Barents.

So it is very timely that Dr. Bernaerts has posted an essay on events shaping the climate in those two places:
Arctic sea ice record low – 02/25/2015
and human offshore activities not to blame – at least a bit?

While the total maximum ice extent in NH is always 14-16 MKm2, both OKhotsk and Barents max extents vary a lot year to year. For example, the Sea of Okhotsk covers 1.58 MKm2 – it’s a huge basin that was virtually filled with ice in March 1979 but only about 1/3 filled in 2015.

Both seas cover about the same area (1,5 Mio. km²),  the Sea of Okhotsk with an average depth of 859 m, and the Barents Sea only 230 m, but differ grossly in many other aspects. While the latter is a continental Shelf, with three islands (Spitsbergen, Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya) as boundaries and open to the North Atlantic and Arctic Ocean, the Sea of Okhotsk is semi enclosed, with an internal current system (Fig. 8-9).

Okhotsk will lose all its ice by July, and Barents usually retains less than 20%.

Bernaerts’ larger point is that in addition to natural variations in circulations, winds and clouds, human activity is also changing the climate, and particularly the ice extent in these places. Both have extensive fishing and commercial shipping, ice-breakers operating, submarine fleet exercises, sea bottom oil extraction, etc. All of these have an effect in the direction of inhibiting ice formation.

Oh, and about the polar bears: They have never been at Okhotsk and never will be. As for Barents, the ice conditions are providing suitable hunting conditions for the polar bears (perhaps the seals deserve a warning).

Dr. Bernaerts concludes:

“The recent new Arctic sea ice record gives little reason for lamenting, but should be seen as an opportunity to investigate and understand the human activities in the Barents and Okhotsk Sea. It could be observed that both seas differed most from average due to warmer sea water temperature. Although it may be difficult to assess the impact of worldwide shipping and fishing on climatic changes and ‘global warming’, it is a much lower challenge if only the impact of two regional seas, representing only about 1% of the global water surface, is investigated.”

Heraclitus (535 BC – 475 BC) famously said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice.” The same can be said for anyone sailing in these seas.

After the early arrival at maximum in February, NH ice extent went sideways and is now on the track of recent years. Where it goes from here is always entertaining.


  1. smamarver · April 19, 2015

    You’re right, oceans should be explored and understood, since oceans make climate and they influence the entire life on the planet. Arctic warming is a fact, though there are many deniers. Last night I’ve watched a documentary about the breaking of a glacier and the melting of an iceberg, in the Arctic region. It was amazing to see what really happens bellow the surface of the sea and to understand how strong the impact of Arctic melting could be for the humanity!


  2. Pingback: Arctic Sea ice Extent Diminishes – Off-Shore Activities Contribute! | Naval War changes Climate

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