The Environmental Monitoring of Svalbard and Jan Mayen (MOSJ) is an umbrella program that collects and analyzes environmental data in the arctic regions of Svalbard and Jan Mayen. Some data of interest include the extent and thickness of sea ice around Svalbard, Fram Strait and the Barents Sea; temperature and salinity of the water transported around Svalbard via the West Spitsbergen Current; ocean acidification; and local sea level changes. This Photo Friday, take a glimpse of the MOSJ researchers in action as they collect measurements in the field. Read their full report and findings here.
The West Spitsbergen Current (WSC) represents the northernmost reaches of the North Atlantic Current system. Warm, saline, subtropical waters are carried across the North Atlantic and along the eastern side of the Nordic seas to end up at Fram Strait. The amount of sea ice flowing through the Fram Strait varies annually, which impacts the strength of the thermohaline circulation and thus, global climate.
In 1576, Queen Elizabeth I paid the equivalent of half a million dollars for a unicorn horn, which she believed could neutralize poison. Of course, it wasn’t a unicorn horn at all, but a narwhal tusk, remarkable in its own right.
Today, over 440 years later, narwhals continue to surprise and attract attention. A recent paper in Biology Letters by Kristin Laidre et al. examined narwhal visits to glacial fronts in West Greenland.
“We don’t fully understand the relation between narwhals and glaciers,” professor Mads Heide-Jørgensen of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources told GlacierHub. Laidre added, “Narwhals in places like the Canadian Arctic, for example, have limited access to glacial habitat. However, in Greenland, most narwhals are close to glaciers in summer because Greenland is so glaciated, and there are glaciers along the entire coastline.”
It has long been observed that narwhals visit glacial fronts in the summer and autumn, but it is unknown why they seek out this habitat. “Glaciers are productive regions,” commented Laidre. “They attract prey, there’s upwelling and nutrient cycling, and sometimes even osmotic shock to small invertebrates which attracts fish… We hope future studies will help us understand this, but we don’t know exactly why they go there.” Belugas, the “sister species” to the narwhal, also favor freshwater habitat in the summer, seeking out shallow water estuaries.
To begin answering this question, Laidre took a novel approach, forming an international, cross-disciplinary team that included scientists from the U.S., Denmark, and the U.K. “The idea was to get biologists and glaciologists to collaborate and share data in an interdisciplinary way,” Laidre said.
The team evaluated which glacial characteristics draw narwhals by collecting data from 15 satellite-tagged whales and following their movements through the fjords of Melville Bay in West Greenland. The narwhals demonstrated three preferences: they spent more time at glaciers that discharge a fresher, rather than siltier melt; they preferred slower-flowing glaciers, which are more stable and calve less; and they favored thicker glacial fronts, perhaps because they maximize access to freshwater.
Sea ice also provides important habitat for narwhals. “All narwhal populations winter, and some even summer, in dense sea ice concentrations,” said Heide-Jørgensen. In summer, narwhals spend time in the high Arctic where ice has receded, and in fall, the ocean freezes solid, pushing the narwhals away from shore, Laidre explained. “They swim away from the forming ice and move offshore, where they overwinter in dense ice cover with cracks so they can breathe. Narwhals are highly associated with sea ice, perhaps the most of all whales,” he said.
Heide-Jørgensen indicated that narwhals will seek out the sea ice when it decreases in coverage rather than wintering in open water. “Reduction of sea ice therefore implies a reduction in habitat, and this will again introduce a reduction in prey base or carrying capacity. In short, less sea ice means less narwhal habitat and eventually less narwhals,” he said.
Laidre agreed that “changes in sea ice and the marine ecosystem will likely be the most important factor” to the future of narwhals as climate changes. Since 1979, sea ice freeze-up has occurred almost a month later in Baffin Bay and Melville Bay, where this study took place, and glaciers, of course, are retreating. But far from being simple victims of global warming, narwhals can aid in the collection of data that can help mitigate climate change.
In 2005 and 2007, Laidre took advantage of narwhals’ capacity for deep dives and tendency to winter in sea ice, outfitting narwhals with temperature and depth sensors. Narwhals regularly dive over 1,700 meters to hunt bottom-dwellers like Greenland halibut, and 90 percent of the recorded dives reached the bottom. This method effectively turned narwhals into self-powered oceanographic instruments and allowed the researchers to collect wintertime data in Baffin Bay, the dearth of which had long been felt in climate records.
Perhaps, most importantly, the study proved that narwhals can constitute an effective ocean observation platform in remote areas where dense ice cover prevents regular instrument deployment. In this way, narwhals are even more magical than the unicorn Queen Elizabeth I imagined.
Along the tidal glacier fronts of Svalbard, an archipelago halfway between Norway and the North Pole, polar bears have changed their hunting practices. A recent study published in the Journal of Animal Ecology indicates the new behavior is a response to rapidly disappearing sea ice. Charmain Hamilton and other researchers from the Norwegian Polar Institute mapped changes in the spatial overlap between coastal polar bears and their primary prey, ringed seals, to better understand how the bears are responding to climate change. The results don’t bode well for the long-term survival of polar bear populations: as sea ice continues to shrink in area, ringed seals—calorie-rich prey that are high in fat— have become increasingly difficult to catch during the summer and autumn. The bears are now finding sources of sustenance elsewhere: in the archipelago’s thriving bird colonies.
The Arctic is warming at a rate three times the global average, and the sea ice in the Svalbard region is experiencing a faster rate of decline than in other Arctic areas. As Charmain Hamilton reported in an interview with GlacierHub, the findings could demonstrate what the future holds for the top predator elsewhere.“The changes that we are currently seeing in Svalbard are likely to spread to other Arctic areas over the coming decades,” she said.
Svalbard’s polar bears exhibit one of two annual movement patterns: some follow the sea ice as it retreats northward during the summer, while others stay local, inhabiting coastal areas throughout the year. Both groups of bears depend on sea ice as a platform to hunt ringed seals. Given a rapid decline of sea-ice levels that began in 2006, Hamilton and other researchers wanted to know if the coastal bears were still hunting ringed seals under the deteriorating conditions.
The researchers compared satellite tracking data for both polar bears and ringed seals from the periods 2002-2004 and 2010-2013 to assess whether the predator-prey dynamic had shifted. The data was analyzed according to season, with researchers paying careful attention to the dynamics of spring, summer and autumn.
In spring, access to fat-rich ringed seals is critical, particularly for mothers weakened from nourishing their young in winter dens. The study shows that coastal polar bears continued to spend the same amount of time near tidal glacier fronts in spring as they did when sea ice was more abundant. The authors conclude that the declines in sea ice in Svalbard have not yet reached the stage at which bears must find alternative hunting methods during the spring. This could help to explain why cub production is not currently declining.
However, during summer and autumn, bears are spending less time in the areas around tidal glacier fronts. The study shows a significant decrease in the amount of time bears spent within 5 km of glacier fronts and a sharp increase in the distances they traveled in search of food per day. The ringed seals, on the other hand, have remained near the glacier fronts. As Hamilton reported to GlacierHub, “The reduced spatial overlap between polar bears and ringed seals during the summer indicates that the reductions in sea ice have made it much more difficult for polar bears to hunt their primary prey during this season.”
As sea ice recedes, ringed seals are increasingly relying on calved pieces of glacier ice as shelters and resting places. Since these pieces of calved ice are no longer connected to land-fast ice, polar bears can no longer walk up to the seals or wait by their breathing holes, but have to attack from the water. This involves swimming surreptitiously up to seals resting on calved glacier ice and bursting onto the platform to make a kill. But this specialty hunting technique has only been observed in a minority of bears.
So where are the coastal bears getting their calories during summer and autumn? The study shows that along with the marked decline in sea ice, the coastal bears were spending more of their time around ground-nesting bird colonies. At present, these tactics seem to be working. The bears are benefiting from a large increase in the populations of several avian species in the region, which Hamilton attributes to ongoing international conservation efforts along migration routes. While an increase in the amount of time polar bears spend on land is considered a cause of deteriorating health in other bear populations, the adult bears and cubs of Svalbard have not shown marked signs of decline.
Have the bears found a lasting alternative? Jon Aars, a research scientist and one of the co-authors on the paper, doesn’t think so. In an interview with GlacierHub, Aars emphasized that while birds and eggs provide the bears with an alternative to burning fat reserves as they wait for the sea ice to return, the dynamic is not permanent. “It is not likely that switching to eating more birds and eggs is something that can save polar bears in the long run if sea ice is gone for the whole of, or most of, the year,” he said. “We do think the bears are still dependent on seals to build up sufficient fat reserves. And it is limited how many bears can utilize a restricted source of eggs and birds on the islands.”
The bears have adapted to the current change in their environment but may not be able to adapt as well in the future. The authors of the paper point out that the increased rates of movement required to hunt avian prey increases the bears’ energy needs. Additionally, as more bears rely on avian prey, their high rate of predation means that bird populations on the archipelago will likely decline, causing bears to alter their hunting strategies again. Ringed seals have not changed their own spatial practices, and the authors propose that more bears could learn, or be forced to learn, the aquatic hunting method.
However, ringed seal populations are in decline due to the loss of sea ice, according to Hamilton. Thus, the future of both species in the region is uncertain. In sensitive environments like the Arctic, predator-prey dynamics are fragile, particularly for species of such high trophic positions. In the future, Hamilton would like to include other Arctic marine top predators in similar studies to better understand how Arctic marine mammal communities are being impacted.
As global warming continues, Arctic sea ice broke the record this year, reaching a new low extent for the month of January. January is typically a month of relatively large sea ice extent, with the annual maximum occurring between February and April. A low sea ice extent in January suggests that the annual maximum, coming in a month or so, will also be low.
Temperatures across most of the Arctic Ocean were around 13 degrees F (6 degrees C) according to a recent report. This was due to Arctic Oscillation, a cyclical pattern of atmospheric pressure in the Northern Hemisphere. The Arctic Oscillation has entered into a negative phase during the first few weeks of the month according to National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). Under such an impact, warmer air would extend further north.
The ice extent retreating in Arctic might have some correlated effects on Antarctic ice shelves. Antarctic sea ice extent also was below average in January, although it just hit the record of reaching a maximum extent in 2014 according to a NASA report. In general, the Arctic sea ice is decreasing, and yet the Antarctic ice continues to grow despite the ocean around it is warming. 2015 is the hottest year on record according to researchers. Would it be the last straw to end the growing trend of Antarctic ice shelves?