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Novel Modeling Technique Reveals Paired Pressures in Arctic Ecosystems

In the Arctic, rapidly shrinking sea ice – a result of climate change-induced warming – is unveiling a “new ocean”, paving the way for the expansion of multiple marine resource industries into uncharted waters.

At the same time, the region is experiencing sudden and harmful ecosystem changes due to environmental and anthropogenic stressors. Instead of merely building on one another, this suite of stressors interacts, both amplifying and dampening the effects of co-occurring pressures. A new Stanford-led study published this week in Nature Communications aims to model and analyze the impacts of combined stressors on marine ecosystems and key species populations from phytoplankton to polar bears.

“Our study shows that synergistic interactions among multiple ecosystem stressors can greatly increase the risk of population collapse in vulnerable regions like the Arctic,” said Stanford professor and COS affiliated researcher Kevin Arrigo, who is lead author on the study. “Synergies between stressors can double or more the populations’ risk of collapse” added Fiorenza Micheli, co-director of Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions and co-author of the study.

Instead of treating stressor interactions as additive, in which their impacts are summed, the novel modeling technique used in this paper accounts for each possible stressor-pairings’ impact on each organism. The Ocean System Interactions, Risks, Instabilities and Synergies framework (OSIRIS) model, developed by co-author Richard Bailey at the University of Oxford, reveals that combined stressors have a larger collective impact than the sum of their individual impacts.

More research into synergies among stressors, as these amplifying interactions are called, will allow for more informed Arctic Ocean management, especially under predicted future pressures from climate change and human activities.

“Models like OSIRIS should provide better insight into population trajectories in the future and help us to devise management strategies that help mitigate some of the negative impacts of environmental stress,” Arrigo said.

Multiple COS affiliated researchers contributed to the paper, including co-directors Fiorenza Micheli and Jim Leape. COS research analyst Lucie Hazen, former COS researchers Lisa Wedding and Mary Cameron, Stanford researchers Gert van Dijken and Mathew Mills, and Stanford professors Stephen MonismithNick Ouellette and Margaret Levi are also co-authors on the study. This work was supported by the Stanford Catalyst for Collaborative Solutions program. 

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