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Arctic Estuaries Threatened by Climate Change

An estuary on Cook Inlet near Anchorage, Alaska. | AAAS/Gavin Stern

Not many species call the brackish, murky waters of Alaska's estuaries home. But a great diversity of life transits through and spawns in them. Erosion, increasing water temperature, and rising sea levels threaten those estuaries today — not 50 years from now.

"Estuaries are the heart of reproduction and food systems. That's where the fish and the algae and food systems start out," said Larry Duffy, executive director of the AAAS Arctic Division.

The health and sustainability of estuaries, which are the transition zone between salty ocean water and freshwater systems, was the focus of the AAAS Arctic Science Conference. The annual meeting was held at the University of Alaska in Anchorage from 1-3 October.

Changes to Arctic environments are a bellwether for what will eventually occur further south. The Artic is warming twice as fast as in lower latitudes, according to the NOAA Arctic Report Card. Average global temperatures were 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit higher in 2014 compared to 1880.

Research at the meeting spanned from the effects on salmon to the social well-being of indigenous Arctic communities. But a theme ran throughout — the Arctic is warming quickly and the environment is changing just as fast.

Many of the scientists at the meeting said the effects of climate change on the estuaries are unknown, in large part because they haven't been studied.

"What we see happening in the north within the biota and the physical environment will happen later at lower latitudes but with a much bigger impact," Duffy said. "When we talk about here of a village of 500 people being eroded away, that's a problem. But when we talk about New York and New Jersey losing a portion of their coast due to sea level rise — that's a big problem."