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

Climate Spotlight: Beluga Whale

Featured image from: http://savenaturesavehuman.blogspot.com/2012/04/beluga-whale.html

If you placed a waterproof microphone in the Arctic Ocean, you might hear the squeaks and whistles of the “Sea Canary,” or Beluga Whale. This vocal marine mammal is completely white and is only found in Arctic and Sub-Arctic waters. Belugas are one of the smallest whales, growing to roughly 3000 pounds (1400 kg) and reaching fifteen feet (5 meters) in length. Compared to other whales, Belugas have a highly flexible neck, which allows them to turn their heads in a wide range of directions to spot predators such as killer whales or polar bears. Like other whales, belugas have a fatty layer of insulation known as blubber that keeps them warm and protects their organs from frigid Arctic temperatures.

Migrating beluga whales in the Chukchi Sea. Image from: http://marinesciencetoday.com/2017/01/17/climate-change-altering-some-beluga-whale-migration/
Migrating beluga whales in the Chukchi Sea. Image from: http://marinesciencetoday.com/2017/01/17/climate-change-altering-some-beluga-whale-migration/

Belugas are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and have been designated a “near threatened” species. Though climate change threatens Belugas, the most concerning factor impacting the Belugas environment is not rising temperatures or an acidified ocean, but increased human activity in the Arctic. As ice melts and opens channels through which ships may traverse the Arctic Ocean, the likelihood of Beluga deaths due to collisions with ships increases. Additionally, sound emitted by ship engines disrupts communication between whales. Ice loss and rising temperatures in the Arctic may also result in a shift of species toward the poles, which will compete with Arctic animals for food. Currently, it is unclear how or if belugas will be able to cope with the environmental impacts of climate change.

To learn more about Belugas, visit these links:

http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/cetaceans/threats/climate_change/

https://insideclimatenews.org/species/mammals/beluga-whale

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.

Script Authors: Daria Mrugala and Alessandro Scinicariello

Contributing Professor: Dr. Lisa Campbell

Editor: James M. Fiorendino

Climate Spotlight: Adelie Penguin

Featured image photo credit: James M. Fiorendino

When a colony of 36,000 Adélie penguins, consisting of 18,000 mating pairs produces only 2 surviving chicks, something is wrong. Populations of Adéélie Penguins in East Antarctica are struggling to cope with environmental changes; currently, this species is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list as a species of “Least Concern”. Environmental shifts due to climate change may elevate them to a more severe status.

Photo credit: James M. Fiorendino
Photo credit: James M. Fiorendino

Adélie penguins are found along the rocky Antarctic coast and nearby islands, where they lay their eggs. These birds can be identified by the black feathers covering their heads, with a ring of white around each eye. Adélie penguins grow to roughly 24 inches (60 cm) tall and can weigh up to 10 pounds (4.5 kg). Though Adélies are known to prey on small fish and squid, their diet is primarily composed of shrimp-like crustaceans known as krill. While clumsy on land, Adélie penguins are excellent swimmers capable of diving to nearly 600 feet (180 meters), though they usually keep to the top 150 feet (50 meters) of water to feed.

DSC_0008
An Adelie penguin perched atop a rock overlooks the surrounding colony. Photo credit: James M. Firoendino

Climate change is impacting populations of Adélie penguins in complex ways. Warming ocean waters and higher average temperatures melt ice and increase available nesting area for penguins. While this may seem beneficial, changes in sea ice formations may force penguins to embark on longer treks seeking food. Additionally, as atmospheric CO2 levels rise, the oceans are becoming more acidic. Ocean acidification has deleterious effects on krill, the primary food source of Adélie penguins. Conservation efforts, such as the establishment of marine protected areas and no-take zones, have been proposed to protect Antarctic ecosystems and species such as the Adélie penguin, but have not yet been enacted.

To learn more about Adélie penguins, check out these links:

http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/fact-sheets/2017/08/protection-for-east-antarctica

http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/fact-sheets/2017/08/protection-for-east-antarctica

http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/fact-sheets/2017/08/protection-for-east-antarctica

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.

Script Authors: Jordan Smith and Matthew Hill

Contributing Professor: Dr. Lisa Campbell

Editor: James M. Fiorendino

Climate Spotlight: Blue Whale

Featured image from: https://www.reference.com/science/being-done-protect-blue-whale-extinction-c1c888fa7d2eba3a

The Blue Whale is the largest animal on Earth. The tongue alone of a fully grown blue whale can weigh as much as an elephant, and the hearts as much as a car. Amazingly, though these marine mammals are undeniably colossal, they achieve their size with a diet composed almost exclusively of tiny crustaceans called krill. Blue whales are found worldwide in subpolar and subtropical waters. In the spring, blue whale populations migrate toward the poles to feed on zooplankton.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (or NOAA) has classified Blue Whales as endangered. These gigantic creatures were almost harvested to extinction until they were declared protected by the International Whaling Commission in 1966. While whaling is no longer a major threat, climate change and human activity have introduced new challenges to blue whale survival. As global temperatures rise, the sea ice surrounding Antarctica is beginning to disappear. Krill, the main prey of blue whales, are depend on microscopic floating plants known as phytoplankton, which are released into the ocean when ice melts during summer months. As ice diminishes, fewer phytoplankton are released in the warmer months. Less phytoplankton means less food for young krill and, consequently, less food for Blue Whales. Additionally, Blue Whales are also vulnerable to collisions with ships, and noise from ship traffic can interfere with Blue Whale communication, mate selection, prey capture and mother-calf bonding. The figure below illustrates the sources and properties of sound in the ocean.

Figure 1: Sources of sound in the ocean; many of the frequencies of man-made sound overlap with frequencies of whale calls. Image from: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/01/big-idea/noisy-ocean
Figure 1: Sources of sound in the ocean; many of the frequencies of man-made sound overlap with frequencies of whale calls. Image from: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/01/big-idea/noisy-ocean

To learn more about blue whales, check out these links:

https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/blue-whale

http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/whales/blue-whale.html

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/b/blue-whale/

http://www.animalplanet.com/wild-animals/endangered-species/blue-whale/

http://marine-flagships.panda.org/breathing-space-for-blue-whales-in-patagonia.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.

Script Authors: Elene Rodriguez and Bridgette Cervera

Contributing Professor: Dr. Lisa Campbell

Editor: James M. Fiorendino