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The Natural Environment

Oceans, Seas, and Coastlines

The largest body of water in the Arctic is the Arctic Ocean, which connects with the North Pacific Ocean and North Atlantic Ocean. The Arctic Ocean includes the Barents Sea, the Beaufort Sea, the Greenland Sea, the Kara Sea, the Chukchi Sea, the East Siberian Sea, and the Laptev Sea, and connects to the Bering Sea and the North Sea. About 45,390 km (28,142 mi) of coastline border the Arctic Ocean.

Arctic sea ice has a major impact on global and local climate. Sea ice is sea water that freezes in winter and may partially melt in summer. As sea ice forms and ages, it slowly turns into fresh water as salt is expelled downward. Ocean water under sea ice has a higher concentration of salt and is denser than surrounding water. The denser salty water sinks, creating a giant circulation pattern that draws warm water near the surface toward the Arctic while colder, denser water flows toward the tropics at a deeper level. When sea ice melts, it creates a layer of less-dense fresh water at the surface of the ocean.

The white surface of the sea ice reflects sunlight and has a cooling effect, in contrast to dark open water that absorbs heat. Sea ice also blocks evaporation off the surface of the oceanóreduced sea ice can result in more intense Arctic storms from increased water vapor in the atmosphere. In addition, sea ice along coastal areas protects land areas from erosion by large waves caused by wind and storms.

Glaciers and ice sheets that reach the edge of the sea create icebergs, giant blocks of freshwater ice that break away and float in the ocean. The melting of icebergs and glaciers into the ocean can raise sea levels. Adding large amounts of less-dense fresh water can also change the flow of ocean currents and affect temperatures of water and air.

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