ice floes in the Arctic


Arctic Ocean - International

An Emerging Ocean Teems with Life

The Central Arctic Ocean is home to fish, invertebrates, migratory birds, and marine mammals. Until the past few summers, the region had been covered with permanent ice throughout human history. But the region is far from barren. Algae grow in and beneath the sea ice, blooming in spring to fuel a food web that includes plankton, Arctic cod, ringed seals, and polar bears. Dead plankton and other animals sink to feed crabs, brittle stars, mollusks, and other invertebrates on the seafloor.

As permanent ice diminishes, a new ocean is opening up. Scientists are just beginning to gather data about the biology of the Central Arctic Ocean because until now it has been difficult to access. Some of the preliminary results presented here illustrate that this emerging ocean is teeming with life and connected to the rest of the world’s oceans.

Marine Mammals: Connecting Arctic Regions

Although their distributions and population densities are relatively unknown, marine mammals use the Central Arctic Ocean in whole or in part as habitat. Polar bears and ringed seals range throughout this area. Specific regions of the Central Arctic Ocean are used by beluga whales from the Canadian Beaufort Sea, narwhal from Russia’s Kara and Laptev seas, and walrus from the Chukchi Sea.

© The Pew Charitable Trusts

Polar Bear and Ringed Seal Observations (Russian data)

The polar bear and ringed seal observations were derived from maps produced for The Pew Charitable Trusts by S. Belikov and V. Prydatko in March 2013. The original maps were created using data from the Russian Arctic Biogeographical Database (RABD), which contains marine mammal observations between 1957 and 2011.

Marine mammal data collected in the region, such as observations of polar bears and ringed seals from Russian scientists (see map on facing page), need to be combined, analyzed, and augmented to form a more complete picture of how marine mammals use these waters. But preliminary information shows the Central Arctic Ocean provides marine mammal habitat that connects Arctic regions.

Plankton: Feeding the Arctic Food Web

As the sun returns in spring, algae blooms cloud the waters of the Arctic Ocean. An assortment of crustaceans gorge on the algae, storing up as much fat as possible to survive the harsh environment. This rich zooplankton is the primary food source for Arctic cod, marine birds, and bowhead whales in many parts of the Arctic. The presence of this plankton in the Central Arctic Ocean suggests similar food web dynamics and could explain the presence of Arctic cod, marine mammals, and seabirds in the region.

© The Pew Charitable Trusts

Plankton Records in the Arctic Bason

These zooplankton data were obtained from UNESCO’s Ocean Biogeographic Information System ( and represent marine crustacean records for the Arctic Ocean in the OBIS database (downloaded March 22, 2013).

Arctic Cod: Transferring Arctic Energy

Arctic cod (Boreogadus saida) are the central link in the food web, transferring energy from algae and plankton to birds and marine mammals. Although scientists know these fish are distributed throughout the Arctic Ocean, including under the North Pole, little systematic information has been gathered about their abundance, their spawning areas, and the patterns of their movements and interactions in the region.

© Oceans North, The Pew Charitable Trusts

Arctic oceanic food web dependence on Arctic cod (Boreogadus saida)

With so much depending on a single species, more research is needed to assess the impacts of human activities such as fishing. Although no commercial fishing for Arctic cod has begun yet in the Central Arctic Ocean, farther south, in the Barents Sea, such a fishery has existed since the 1970s. Unregulated commercial fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean, before adequate scientific research is completed and appropriate management measures are implemented, could harm future fisheries and the marine mammals and seabirds that rely on this vital element of the Arctic ecosystem.