10 October 2019
The Arctic is undergoing unprecedented environmental change. Rapid warming, decline in sea ice extent, increase in riverine input, ocean acidification and changes in primary productivity are creating a crucible for multiple concurrent environmental stressors, with unknown consequences for the entire arctic ecosystem. Here, we synthesized 30 years of data on the stable carbon isotope (δ 13C) signatures in dissolved inorganic carbon (δ 13C‐DIC; 1977–2014), marine and riverine particulate organic carbon (δ 13C‐POC; 1986–2013) and tissues of marine mammals in the Arctic. δ 13C values in consumers can change as a result of environmentally driven variation in the δ 13C values at the base of the food web or alteration in the trophic structure, thus providing a method to assess the sensitivity of food webs to environmental change. Our synthesis reveals a spatially heterogeneous and temporally evolving δ 13C baseline, with spatial gradients in the δ 13C‐POC values between arctic shelves and arctic basins likely driven by differences in productivity and riverine and coastal influence. We report a decline in δ 13C‐DIC values (−0.011‰ per year) in the Arctic, reflecting increasing anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO 2) in the Arctic Ocean (i.e. Suess effect), which is larger than predicted. The larger decline in δ 13C‐POC values and δ 13C in arctic marine mammals reflects the anthropogenic CO 2 signal as well as the influence of a changing arctic environment. Combining the influence of changing sea ice conditions and isotopic fractionation by phytoplankton, we explain the decadal decline in δ 13C‐POC values in the Arctic Ocean and partially explain the δ 13C values in marine mammals with consideration of time‐varying integration of δ 13C values. The response of the arctic ecosystem to ongoing environmental change is stronger than we would predict theoretically, which has tremendous implications for the study of food webs in the rapidly changing Arctic Ocean.
Warming of the Arctic has led to changes in multiple environmental factors that control the carbon isotope ratio at the base of the food web. Here, we present the first comprehensive spatial and temporal assessment of the carbon isotopic baseline for the Arctic Ocean, which is essential for understanding and predicting changes in Arctic food web structure. The response of the Arctic ecosystem to ongoing environmental change presented here is stronger than we would predict theoretically.