Alaska Sea Grant

Investigation 3 WebQuest

Scientists Studying the Bering Sea


“The Bering Sea is one of the most highly productive marine ecosystems on earth. It supports the largest commercial fisheries in the world.seal Whales, seals and seabirds flock to the Bering Sea to feed. Fur seals breed on island rookeries while walrus haul out on sea ice to bear young. Fin, minke, humpback, gray, and right whales, as well as belugas and porpoises feast on huge schools of smaller fishes and tiny crustaceans while orcas hunt other whales, seals, or salmon. Sea otters stay close to shore near kelp forests plucking invertebrates from the seafloor. Nearly half of Alaska’s seabirds live in just 10 colonies in the Bering Sea.” (

Scientists have been researching the organisms in the Bering Sea on board a large ice breaking ship called the Healy. Come on board the Healy!


You will play the role of a team of scientists that are planning projects for the next cruise of the icebreaker Healy. Your team will include scientists who specialize in the study of water chemistry, plankton, seaweeds, marine invertebrates (such as clams and sea urchins), marine mammals, and marine birds.

healy The Healy will go to the Bering Sea in April to continue the Bering Sea Integrated Ecosystem Research Program (BSIERP). The program aims to find out how the marine ecosystem of the Bering Sea operates – from the
biological communities on the sea bottom to the atmosphere, and everything in between, including humans. The goal is to accurately forecast how changing environmental conditions will affect species important to humans, such as fish that are commercially harvested.

Your team will write a proposal to the North Pacific Research Board convincing them that your research urgently requires data to be collected on the upcoming Healy cruise. Several other scientists will be attending this meeting and making a case for their study plan. Several teams will be chosen for the cruise but you must score high on the evaluation criteria to qualify!


Here are the steps you need to follow to make your case:

  1. Find out about the Bering Sea, its physical conditions, and how they are changing.
  2. Choose the Bering Sea organisms that each team member will research. Each team member will research at least two organisms.
  3. Research your organisms.
  4. Meet with your team members and construct a concept map of the relationships among the organisms each team member has collected information about.
  5. Based on the information you have learned, decide what you plan to measure or observe, and the reasons why these studies are important to understanding the effects of a warming climate on the Bering Sea ecosystem. There should be no more than seven organisms that you plan to study on the Healy cruise.
  6. Write your study plan proposal.
  7. Participate in a Science Symposium, using a PowerPoint presentation, animation, poster, or story to persuade the Research Board committee that your study plan is worthy. Be creative!

Now, let’s get started!

The Bering Sea
Use the websites on the “Resources” page to learn about the Bering Sea.
In your science notebook, answer the following:

  • What makes the Bering Sea so special? In other words, why should we study it? Provide examples.
  • Discuss how scientists think that climate change may be affecting the physical properties of the Bering Sea. You may consider ice cover, sea level, salinity, temperature, light, turbidity, and other physical properties.
  • Remember to cite the source(s) of your information.

Life in the Bering Sea
Choose from the following list of Bering Sea organisms to research: 

  • Ice Algae
  • Bowhead Whale  
  • Right Whale
  • Walrus
  • Sea Urchin
  • Jellyfish
  • Least Auklet
  • Black-legged Kittiwake
  • Spectacled Eider
  • Clams (Macoma)
  • Polar Bear
  • Arctic cod
  • Copepod
  • Ringed Seal
  • Krill (Euphausids) 

Use the websites on the “Resources” page of this WebQuest to address the following in your science notebook. Again, remember to cite your source(s) of your information:
For each of your specific organisms…   

  • Make a sketch of the organism in its natural habitat. Remember that a habitat includes food, shelter, space and water. Include sea ice if it is important to meet habitat needs.
  • To which trophic level does the organism belong to?
  • How does it get its energy? (What does it eat?)
  • What does the organism give energy to? (What eats it?)
  • Make an inference as to how the organism would be affected by the rapid melt of sea ice and less sea ice.

In general…

  • Explain how the biodiversity of an ecosystem contributes to its sustainability.
  • Describe interactions between biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) factors in an ecosystem.

Create a concept map of the ecosystem with your team
Meet with your team members. Give each team member five minutes to summarize what they found out about their organism’s role in the ecosystem and their inference about how a warming climate might affect it. As each person shares their information, draw a picture of the connections within the Bering Sea ecosystem - who eats who, the needs of each organism for sea ice, open water, or land and important connections to people.

Develop a study plan proposal
As a group, discuss which of the organisms and connections are most important to study to understand the effects of a warming climate to the entire Bering Sea ecosystem. Remember that you are going to the Bering Sea in April and that will limit what you can study. Choose up to seven organisms or groups of organisms to study. Work together as each team member writes up their section of the study plan proposal. Your proposal will have the following sections:

  1. Descriptive Title
  2. Objectives (Statements that describe specifically what you intend to study and do for each species; e.g., to observe _____, to measure _____, etc.)
  3. Hypothesis or Hypotheses (The questions you are trying to answer for each species, stated as predictions)
  4. Justification (Why is it important that the study be done? Why are the species you intend to focus on the most important ones to the study and questions you are trying to answer?)
  5. Methods (What type of data will you collect? What technology will you use? Where will you study take place? What is your schedule for samples and observations?)

Science Symposium
Develop your study plan for the next Healy research cruise into a presentation to the rest of the class and the Research Board committee. Make your presentation as creative as possible. You may choose to use a PowerPoint presentation, an animation, a poster, a story, or another way of presenting. Remember you are trying to convince them that you have the best plan! Remember to check the WebQuest Presentation rubric to be sure you have included all the requirements.


Part 1: Bering Sea Research
Physical/geographic description of the Bering Sea, with maps showing bathymetry, currents, habitats, islands, and sea.
Description of Bering Sea ecostystem and wildlife, and threats to wildlife
NASA site with satellite imagery showing and describing physical attributes, seasons and changes in the Bering Sea

Part 2: Organism Research
Brief description and photos of arctic species at risk due to climate change
Descriptions and photos of arctic marine life from diatoms to whales, with links to additional information
Alaska Ocean Observing System: Information and learning activities about marine mammals and birds
Interactive Bering Sea/arctic ecosystem with info on key species:
Canadian Museum of Nature: Life Under the Ice, Amphipods

Ice Algae
Wikipedia: Ice Algae
NOAA article about algae and other organisms that live within sea ice
Canadian Museum of Nature: Life Under the Ice, Arctic Sea Ice Core
Canadian Museum of Nature: Life Under the Ice, Microscopic phytoplankton

The Biology of Copepods
Wikipedia: Copepods

National Geographic Krill profile with photo
Wikipedia: Krill

Clam (Macoma spp)
Macoma clam

The Jellies Zone
Jellyfish: Oregon Aquarium
Wikipedia: Jellyfish

Sea Urchins
Wikipedia: Sea Urchins
Canadian Museum of Nature: Life Under the Ice, Sea urchins
Sea Urchin Natural History

Bering Sea Seabirds
Least Auklet
Alaska Seabirds Information Series: Least Auklet – Least Auklet
Birds of North America Online: Least Auklet

Black-legged Kittiwake
Alaska Seabirds Information Series: Black-legged Kittiwake
Birds of North America Online: Black-legged Kittiwake
Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds: Black-legged Kittiwake

Spectacled Eider
Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game Notebook Series: Eider
BBC interview with Jim Lovvorn: Spectacled Eider
Field notes: Spotlight On… Spectacled Eiders

Arctic cod
Canadian Museum of Nature: Life Under the Ice, Arctic Cod
Wikipedia: Arctic cod
Arctic cod information, description, distribution and ecology

Bering Sea Marine Mammals
Canadian Museum of Nature: Life Under the Ice, Walrus
Fact Sheet: Pacific Walrus Response to Arctic Sea Ice Losses
Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game Notebook Series: Walrus

Ringed Seal
Canadian Museum of Nature: Life Under the Ice: Ringed Seal
Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game Notebook Series: Ringed Seal
National Marine Mammal Laboratory: Ringed Seals

Bowhead Whale
Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game Notebook Series: Bowhead Whale
Bowhead Whales in Alaska
National Marine Mammal Laboratory: Bowhead Whales

Right Whale
National Marine Mammal Laboratory: Right Whales
North Pacific Right Whale
American Cetacean Society: Right Whale

Polar Bear
Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game Notebook Series: Polar Bear
Canadian Museum of Nature: Life Under the Ice: Life Under the Ice: Polar Bears
National Geographic: Polar Bear


The WebQuest rubric will be used to assess your understanding.


Think about the statement:

“Physical changes in the environment can change the conditions for life."

How does it relate to the your study of the Bering Sea?

As you reflect, decide on 3-5 important examples of how climate change may be affecting living things in the Bering Sea.

In your science notebook, explain why each is important; and why should people care about each of those potential effects.

Alaska Sea Grant University of Alaska Fairbanks Alaska Department of Education and Early Development NOAA