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Climate Spotlight: Arctic Seals

Featured image by Cassandra D. (https://goo.gl/9zBtnw)

Climate change is sealing the fate of Arctic seal populations—especially the ribbon, bearded, and ringed seal species. Long-term observations have shown that the Arctic is losing large amounts of sea ice between the winter and summer seasons each year. Ice reflects sunlight striking Earth back into space; less ice lowers Earth’s albedo, or reflectivity, resulting in less energy, and consequently less heat, being reflected into space, creating a positive feedback loop contributing to temperature rise and ice loss.

Sea ice in the Arctic is declining. The above figure shows sea ice cover decline since 1970, as well as projected sea ice extent by 2100.
Sea ice in the Arctic is declining. The above figure shows sea ice cover decline since 1970, as well as projected sea ice extent by 2100. Image from: https://blogs.mprnews.org/updraft/2015/05/arctic-sea-ice-on-pace-for-new-record-low/

Loss of sea ice also means the loss of habitat for many marine mammals, such as arctic seals. The Ringed, Bearded, and Ribbon Seals all depend upon sea ice for breeding, shelter, and rearing of their young. For Ringed Seals, the most common Arctic seal, this is quite devastating because Ringed Seals rarely venture onto land. Additionally, Ringed seals create shelters for newborns by tunneling in pack ice, where they give birth. These tunnels both provide shelter for the newborn seal pup and create a microclimate to keep the pup warm, like an igloo. The breakup of ice can result in the separation of mother and pup, which may be fatal. Without sea ice, not only do seals have to give birth in the water, they cannot create shelters in the ice, which decreases the odds of pup survival. Warmer temperatures also allow pathogens and parasites to thrive; less sea ice area results in seals living in close proximity, which increases the chance of spreading parasites or diseases to other individuals.

Mother harp seals identify pups by scent; here a mother harp seal sniffs her pup. Photo by Brian J. Skerry, https://fineartamerica.com/featured/a-mother-harp-seal-sniffs-her-pup-brian-j-skerry.html
Mother harp seals identify pups by scent; here a mother harp seal sniffs her pup. Photo by Brian J. Skerry, https://fineartamerica.com/featured/a-mother-harp-seal-sniffs-her-pup-brian-j-skerry.html

This has been On the Ocean, a program made possible by the Department of Oceanography and a production of KAMU-FM on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. For more information and links, please go to ocean.tamu.edu and click On the Ocean.

To learn more about Arctic seals, check out these links:

http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/seals/ringed-seal.html

https://www.afsc.noaa.gov/nmml/education/pinnipeds/ribbon.php

Script Authors: Brian Buckingham and Andrew Watts

Contributing Professor: Dr. Lisa Campbell

Editor: James M. Fiorendino