The Big Thaw: Warming Affects Arctic Animals, People in Different Ways

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Discussions of climate change often focus on mid-latitude effects in order to emphasize the need for action. However, climate change and ensuing ice melts are quickly devastating Arctic mammals and native peoples of the Arctic.

Discussions of climate change often focus on mid-latitude effects in order to emphasize the need for action. After all, most of the world‰Ûªs population lives below the Arctic Circle. However, climate change and ensuing ice melts are quickly devastating Arctic mammals and native peoples of the Arctic.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), six researchers laid out some of the most recent problems caused by climate change in the Arctic.

September 2012 saw a new sea ice minimum, said Sue Moore, biological oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In the 2012 season, ice was at an all-time low for both surface area and volume. The previous low-ice record was in 2007, and the 2013 ice season was slightly better due to fluctuations in wind patterns.

Annual persistence‰ÛÓthe number of days that seasonal ice exists in the system‰ÛÓis dropping, according to Moore. There are now about 30-35 fewer days of ice per decade than at the onset of consistent satellite tracking in 1979.

According to Moore, this ‰ÛÏnew normal‰Û disrupts the behavior patterns of ice-obligate species (that rely on sea ice platforms), ice associated species (that are adapted to sea ice-dominated systems), and seasonally migratory species.

The shifting environment is beneficial to some species, however. ‰ÛÏIt‰Ûªs a great time to be a bowhead whale,‰Û Moore said. Due to longer periods without ice, bowhead whales are able to travel and feed more often, resulting in improved body condition and a greater number of bowhead whales.

But, Moore cautioned, ice loss is bad for a great number of ice-obligate species. For walruses and polar bears in particular, loss of ice means loss of habitat and a forced change in feeding behaviors.

According to Michael Grigg, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, ice loss also can contribute to the spread of illness in marine mammals. Ice acts as a barrier to pathogen spread, Grigg said, so reduction in ice means more mobility for disease-carrying mammals.

 

The clouds begin to thin over the Arctic Ocean, in August 2009. Image Credit: Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard/U.S. Geological Survey.

The clouds begin to thin over the Arctic Ocean, in August 2009. Image Credit: Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard/U.S. Geological Survey.

 

Raphaela Stimmelmayr, a research biologist with the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, said that ice loss may have played a role in a recent disease outbreak in marine mammals.

A 2011 seal mortality event indicated a novel disease, Stimmelmayr said. Symptoms of the previously unobserved illness included increased approachability (seals are usually quite difficult to hunt), lesions around the eyes, sores around the tail, and hair loss. The onset of the disease coincided with the ice breakup and ‰ÛÏfree ice period‰Û (around June-October).

Still, it‰Ûªs not entirely certain that quicker ice breakup is to blame‰ÛÓthe disease must also be considered in a post-Fukushima context, Stimmelmayr said. A significant amount of contaminated water leaked into the ocean following the March 2011 accident.

This novel illness caused concerns about the food security for Arctic Inuit people. Seals are a ‰ÛÏkey harvested species‰Û in Inuit hunting and food sharing practices, according to the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

Experts don‰Ûªt yet know if there are health risks from eating infected seals, and current reports suggest that traditional Inuit methods of cooking and drying meat negate the risk of disease transmission to humans. Still, says Grigg, eating infected seals is not advised.

Though this particular incident is not currently believed to significantly impact the food security of Inuit people, the changing behavioral patterns and increased risk of illness for Arctic marine mammals are disrupting and endangering the traditional Inuit way of life. In fact, the Inuit Circumpolar Council has adopted a resolution to support climate change research and changes in climate and environmental policy. For Inuit people above the Arctic Circle, the effects of climate change are already impossible to ignore.