When it comes to talking about elections, most people would say that they want to see change.

Presently, this country is screaming for change and people are risking their personal safety protesting in the streets to express their need for a change of course for the country.

The political unrest has been going on for many weeks and has gained a momentum which is likely to carry on until the regime changes.

Regime shift is a term used for socio-political change, for drastic changes in the economy and for major changes in an ecosystem.

This memorable year of 2020, has it all: Climate change is now on all channels; the political climate has tensed, many of us are feeling the sting of an economy thrown into turmoil by lockdown and stay-at-home orders, and the environment is experiencing extremes in temperatures, causing regime shifts in ecosystems around the planet.

No matter if your focus is on herring, salmon, pollock, cod, crab, kelp or marine mammals, you have seen your subjects either struggle or surge within the past two decades, and in some cases, you have watched them go from one extreme to another.

Last month, the magazine Science reported a study proclaiming a regime shift in the Arctic.

Over the past decade, phytoplankton production in the Arctic Ocean has increased by 57% (that is huge)!

Phytoplankton are the incredible, single-celled biological production plants that use the sunlight’s energy to bind atmospheric carbon dioxide and turn it into complex sugars, which are then consumed by small animals.

As a waste product of this reaction, they conveniently produce the oxygen we need to breathe.

Part of this increase in phytoplankton production can be explained simply by the increased surface area of exposed water. As temperatures rise — and in the Arctic this rise is proportionally much faster than in lower latitudes — sea ice melts and more water surface is exposed. However, there is more to it: The phytoplankton is also growing faster, the blooms are more concentrated. 

If phytoplankton biomass is high, that is generally good news for fishermen and other top-level predators.

In a way, you could think of the phytoplankton production as your base budget. However, top-level predators only get to profit if all the steps in between are also working to transport the energy up the food chains.

Just like high federal spending may be good news if it is directed your way or may be lost without any benefit to you if it goes to some program that you have no stakes in, the phytoplankton production needs to be used by the “right” consumers.

In cold Arctic waters there are copepods, little shrimp-like crustaceans that specialize in living in the plankton and eating as much phytoplankton as they can turn into a big glob of fat inside their little bodies. Fat is beautiful if you live in cold water!

Another shrimp-like crustacean, krill, also feeds on phytoplankton and on the small and young of the copepods. If forage fish and the juveniles of the commercial fish species eat the copepods and the krill all is great for the ecosystem, the birds, seals, sea lions, whales and fishermen — at least that is true in subpolar ecosystems like the Gulf of Maine or the Bering Sea.

The Arctic Ocean is outside of the range of most of the commercial fish species, though presently several species are expanding their range northward.

This is change into completely uncharted territory and it is anyone’s educated guess who will be the winners and losers in the Arctic.

A regime is a system or set of rules. If the rules shift, the system breaks down in its balanced state.

In the example above, we would call the ecosystem healthy and there are many winners. However, if such a system gets out of balance due to outside factors that change the proportions between predators and prey, the effects can cascade and affect many of the components.

Phytoplankton, zooplankton, fish and whales form a food chain within this more complex system. Scientists call the place where an organism feeds within this system a trophic level.

In our simple example, phytoplankton are the first trophic level or producers, zooplankton are the second trophic level or first consumers, fish the third and whales the fourth trophic level. 

Many animals switch trophic level in the course of their life history. For example, a cod larva floats in the plankton and eats copepods, but then it settles near the bottom, hiding between rocks or seaweeds and switching to more shrimp and small crabs, only to grow up into a juvenile cod which eats small herring and other fishes.

Similarly, the predators also change throughout its life cycle: The larva may be eaten by plankton feeders like herring or mackerel or get tangled in the tentacles of a jelly fish, the small cod hiding near the ocean floor can get found out by larger bottom feeders including adult cod and pollock or halibut, while the medium-sized fish may get chased down by a seal or sea lion (not in the Atlantic; I recently learned that they don’t have sea lions in the Gulf of Maine!).

If many of the top-level predators like the birds, whales and fishermen get used to a high production of a species, for example herring or cod, and then that species declines due to shifts in resources needed in any of its life stages, the system gets out of balance.

The different top-level predators only get along next to each other as long as the resource of their target fish is growing in size, but as soon as their target fish is limited, the system starts to head for a regime shift: The competition gets fiercer and all of the top-level predators lose.

This is the current situation in many fisheries; When the fish are missing or move to different areas, the top-level predators are slow or unable to react. The whole system breaks down: Whales and birds are starving, and fishermen are caught up in economic crisis.

Regime shift is fundamental change in the way things are. In most cases it is tumultuous and upturning. In most cases there are a lot of losses, even some fatalities.

It is scary to leave a stable system and head for something so uncertain. Even if we all want change, even a political regime shift, it is also very scary to embrace the uncertainty and upheaval of the interim with no knowledge of what the new regime might hold and who will be the winners and losers in a new regime.

Nonetheless, once a regime shift starts, its momentum carries it forward until a new stable state is reached.

However, most scientists predict that we can expect more frequent regime shifts in ecosystems and in case you have not made the connection: Political systems are linked with natural systems.

The interplay between ocean temperatures, fisheries and small-town economics, and voter satisfaction is just one of many such examples. Everything is connected in our amazing world.

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