Are White Whales Resilient to Climate Change?

As global warming increases, cold regions like the Arctic continue to experience great shifts in climate and environment. The effects of these shifts are closely observed in human populations, but how are different species impacted? A recent study examined white whales in Svalbard, Norway, and the climate change effects on their behavior and diet. Researchers looked at how reduced sea-ice formation and melting tidal glacier fronts influence the changes in habitat and movement patterns for this species.

White Whale Background and Observations

White whales, also known as beluga whales, can be found in the circumpolar Arctic. They’re known for their distinct white color and are one of the smallest whale species in the world. They are sometimes referred to as “sea canaries” for their high-pitched calls. With an estimated 150,000 individuals globally, they are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Some local populations such as those located in Cook Inlet, Alaska, are considered critically endangered.

White whale spotted in the Arctic and sub-Arctic (Source: Dennis Jarvis/Flickr)

These whales remain off the Svalbard coasts year-round. They live in sea-ice fjords and tidal glacier-front habitats. The fjords are sheltered from open-water predators, human activity, and extreme weather, making them particularly ideal for juvenile mammals. Tidal glacier-fronts are prime foraging areas for the whales. These regions have fresh water ideal for polar cod and capelin, two fish that make up a large part of white whale diet.

White whales migrate seasonally, some travelling 10s of kms, others as far as several hundred. During the warm summer season, sea ice in the fjords melts, providing an opportunity for the whales to move and feed in this region. Sea ice formation in the winter pushes the whales out toward the glacier-front habitats, where they spend most of their time during the colder season.

Methodology and Sampling

Increased warming is expected to negatively influence the environmental composition of this region. Svalbard has the greatest decrease in seasonal sea-ice cover in the circumpolar Arctic region. Rapid increase of air and sea water temperatures over the last two decades are the major contributing factors to this change. According to researchers, glacier-front melting and the associated reduction of foraging habitat could lead to changes in diet. Less sea-ice formation in fjords and warmer seasons could also affect biodiversity in these habitats. Could this mean white whales will need to migrate elsewhere for feeding during warmer seasons?

Researchers in this study compared habitat and movement changes of white whales, before and after major warming induced changes in the environment. They believed these changes began in 2006, so the two study periods were 1995-2001 and 2013-2016.

Fortunately for the researchers, satellite data from earlier years was available. They used satellite tracking to take measurements of whale movement patterns for the later period, and were then able to compare movement patterns for both periods. To track movement, white whale groups were live-captured using a nylon net and then tagged.

Researchers tagging a whale for observation (Source: Kit M. Kovacs)

GlacierHub interviewed Kit M. Kovacs, one of the study’s authors and a senior research scientist at the Norwegian Polar Institute. Kovacs explained that choice of methods reflected concerns for animal welfare as well as data gathering. Groups without calves were netted, to prevent possible injury to young whales, she said. A total of 38 adult individuals were sampled for the study, 34 of them being male. Kovacs also explained that the females travel with their young, while adult males tend to travel in all-male groups, which would explain the sampling bias.

Research Findings and White Whale Resiliency

Results showed that during the later tracking period, the whales continued to remain close to the Svalbard coast. Scientists found this behavior to be striking, particularly when looking at populations in other areas that move long distances. The whales remain close to Spitsbergen, one of the largest islands in Svalbard. They move from the west coast fjords in the summer toward the east coast in the winter. The greatest distance of movement occurred when individuals were forced off the coast by the winter formation of landfast sea ice.

Ice front at a Spitsbergen glacier (Source: Paul/Flickr).

Some changes in habitat were observed. Whales were found to spend much time in glacier-front habitats for both periods, although they now spend more time out in the fjords. Less sea ice formation in the fjords has allowed for an influx of fish species that prefer the warmer waters. Arctic fish, particularly polar cod, have declined in numbers in this habitat, and are being replaced by Atlantic cod, haddock and herring. This new fish composition could be attracting the whales to fjords during the warm season.

Kovacs explained how a change in diet could affect the whales. “White whales use a pretty broad array of food types across their range, so it is unlikely to be a big deal for them to switch to new fish types. They might have to eat more, if the new fishes have a lower fat content, just to keep the same energy intake. As long as enough are available, it should not change their annual intake,” she said.

The white whales’ ability to consume a variety of food resources proves to be beneficial to the species. This helps them build resilience against some of the extreme effects of warming. The beluga may be able to adapt to an environment with less ice than in the past due to this dietary flexibility. Other species may not be so fortunate.

Roundup: Svalbard Glaciers, A Handy New Book, and Dissolved Organic Carbon

These Svalbard Glaciers Survived Early Holocene Warming

From Science Direct: “About 60 percent of Svalbard is covered by glaciers today, but many of these glaciers were much reduced in size or gone in the Early Holocene. High resolution modeling of the glacial isostatic rebound reveals that the largest glaciers in Nordaustlandet and eastern Spitsbergen survived the Early Holocene warming, while the smaller, more peripheral glaciers, especially in the northwest, started to form about 5,500 years ago, and reached 3/4 of their current size about 600 years ago.”

Read more about the Svalbard glaciers here.

Overflight of Spitsbergen, Svalbard (Source: Peter Prokosch/Flickr).


Glaciation: A Very Short Introduction

From the Oxford University Press: “Vast, majestic, and often stunningly beautiful, glaciers lock up some 10 percent of the world’s freshwater. These great bodies of ice play an important part in the Earth system, carving landscapes and influencing climate on regional and hemispheric scales, as well as having a significant impact on global sea level… This Very Short Introduction offers an overview of glaciers and ice sheets as systems, considering the role of geomorphology and sedimentology in studying them, and their impacts on our planet in terms of erosional and depositional processes.”

Read more about the author, David J. A. Evans, and get a copy here.

Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords, Alaska (Source: National Park Service).


Dissolved Organic Carbon in Tibetan Plateau Glaciers

From PLOS One: “Dissolved organic carbon (DOC) released from glaciers has an important role in the biogeochemistry of glacial ecosystems. This study focuses on DOC from glaciers of the southeastern Tibetan Plateau, where glaciers are experiencing rapid shrinkage.”

Read more about the research here.

(a) Location of the study area and (b) the distributions of studied glaciers in the southeastern Tibetan Plateau (Source: Zhang, Kang, Li, Gao).


Roundup: Seals, Flood Mitigation, and Freezing Levels

Seal Whiskers Detect Ecosystem Change

From Polar Biology: “Warm Atlantic water in west Spitsbergen have led to an influx of more fish species. The most abundant marine mammal species in these fjords is the ringed seal. In this study, we used isotopic data from whiskers of two cohorts of adult ringed seals to determine whether signals of ecosystem changes were detectable in this top marine predator.”

Find out more about ringed seals here.

A ringed seal in Kongsfjorden, North West Spitsbergen (Source: The Might Fine Company/Google Images).


Flood Mitigation Strategies in Pakistan

From Natural Hazards: “The frequency and severity of flood events have been increased and have affected the livelihood and well-being of millions of people in Pakistan. Effective mitigation policies require an understanding of the impacts and local responses to extreme events, which is limited in Pakistan. This study revealed the adaptation measures adopted in Pakistan, and that the local policies on disaster management need to be improved to address the barriers to the adoption of advanced level adaptation measures.”

Find out more about flood risk mitigation in Pakistan here.

Pakistani villagers leaving their homes after a flood in Muridke (Source: DAWN/Google Images).


Rising Freezing Levels in Tropical Andes

From AGU Publications: “The mass balance of tropical glaciers in Peru is highly sensitive to a rise in the freezing level height (FLH). Knowledge of future changes in the FLH is crucial to estimating changes in glacier extents. Glaciers may continue shrinking considerably, and the consequences of vanishing glaciers are especially severe where people have only limited capacity to adapt to changes in the water availability due to, for instance, lack of financial resources.”

Find out more about freezing levels in Peru here.

Evidence of melting at Pastoruri glacier in Northern Peru (Source: Inyucho/Creative Commons).


Glaciers Act as Pollutant Transporters in the Arctic

Polar bear and her cubs in Svalbard (source: Alistar Rae/Flickr)
A polar bear and her cubs in Svalbard (Source: Alistar Rae/Creative Commons).

When people think of the Arctic, they often think of polar bears on melting sea ice, not of an area contaminated by pollutants. However, according to an article by Maria Papale et al. in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, findings of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the Arctic demonstrate that ice can be a major transporter of pollutants in this remote region. The research team examined the concentration of PCBs in a fjord called Kongfjorden, located in Svalbard in Arctic Norway (79° N, 12° E), in order to understand how the Arctic is affected by pollutants. Given the impact these chemicals can have on human and animal health, the increase in ice melt due to climate change will have serious consequences for the release of these toxins.

Kongsfjorden is located in Svalbard, an archipelago in Arctic Norway (Source: TUBS/Creative Commons).

PCBs are an important type of persistent organic pollutants (POPs); as such, they have a long lifetime in the environment, although they can be broken down by sunlight or some microorganisms. They are compounds once used heavily in the production of refrigerator coolants, electrical insulators and other items from 1929 until the late 1970s, when they were banned in the United States and elsewhere due to health concerns, particularly their carcinogenic effects. The presence of PCBs in Svalbard in the Arctic Basin indicates some form of long-distance transport because the Arctic is thousands of miles from industrial centers where PCBs are produced. Pollutants like PCBs are transported from regions in the northern mid-latitudes into the Arctic by the prevailing winds and ocean currents.

As Papale et al. explain, the PCBs deposited from the atmosphere accumulate on the snow and ice. This deposition has a drastic effect on the region, because PCBs that get trapped in the ice are ultimately released into the environment once the ice melts. For this reason, decades-old PCBs can enter rivers and oceans now, as glaciers melt; they are also emitted when PCB-containing materials wear out through use or when they are burned. In the Arctic, concentrations of PCBs are on average 0.2 ng/m3. Those concentrations have increased since the 1980s, after the banning of PCBs in the United States.

A view of Kongsfjorden (Source: Sphinx/Creative Commons).

Once introduced into the food web, the fate of PCBs depends on which bacteria is present in the environment, since bacteria, such as Actinobacteria and Gammaproteobacteria, possess genetic and biochemical capacities for breaking down PCB pollution. Papale et al. gathered data on the occurrence of cold-adapted, PCB-oxidizing bacteria in seawater and sediment along Kongsfjord, a fjord located on the west coast of Spitsbergen, an island in the Svalbard archipelago. The fjord is fed by two glaciers, Kronebreen and Kongsvegen. The outer fjord is influenced by oceanographic conditions, while the inner fjord is influenced by large tidewater glaciers.

Higher concentrations of PCBs were observed in the water right next to the glacier (due to high flows of sediment and sea currents) or next to the open sea (likely due to water circulation inside the fjord). The higher concentrations of PCBs next to the glacier indicate the influence of glacial meltwater containing PCBs. Once the PCBs arrive in Svalbard Archipelago by long-range transport, they build up in the glaciers on Kongfjorden, sometimes by attaching to fine-grained particles, which are then incorporated into the ice. When the ice melts in the summer, the glacier meltwater containing PCBs flows into the fjord and could also freeze into sea ice in the winter. Sea ice transported from other regions also brings POPs to the region. For example, Arctic Ocean sea ice that forms near Siberia can contain pollutant-laden sediments; it is carried to Svalbard by currents, receiving depositions from the atmosphere as it travels. It can also contain heavy metals like lead, iron and copper, as well as organochlorides like PCBs or DDTs.

A view of one of Kongsfjorden’s glacier (Source: Superchilum/Creative Commons).

Once PCBs enter the waters of Kongsfjorden, they can be absorbed by plankton and other organisms at the bottom of food webs. They become concentrated in the tissues of the invertebrates that eat these organisms. As they pass up the food webs to organisms such as fish, and then to birds and mammals, the concentrations increase, through a process known as bioaccumulation. Recent research has found dangerous levels of these compounds in polar bears, a top predator. As advocacy organizations for these iconic animals have argued, these toxins represent an additional threat to the viability of the species, already challenged by the loss of icebergs and sea ice so critical to their survival. In this way, polar bears can provide testimony to the dangers of chemical pollution, as well as to the dangers of global warming, in the remote high Arctic.

Oxonians Retrace Paths Through Spitsbergen 93 Years Later

The team and their guide on the summit of Poincarétoppen (Source: Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced
The team and their guide on the summit of Poincarétoppen (Source: Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced).

During summer, a team of four students from Oxford University, led by undergraduate James Lam, completed a 184-mile expedition across the Ny-Friesland ice cap in Spitsbergen, Norway. Accompanied by a guide, Endre Før Gjermundsen, they skied across the ice cap from July 31 to August 29, retracing the route of a similar expedition conducted by four Oxford University undergraduates in 1923, and collecting scientific data about glaciers along the way.

Spitsbergen is the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago, a territory located within the Arctic circle. Svalbard has more than 2,100 glaciers, constituting 60 percent of its land area, many of which are found on Spitsbergen. The island is also home to many mountains and fjords, giving rise to its name, which means ‘pointed mountains’ in Dutch.

Chydeniusbreen as seen in a photograph taken in 1923 (Source: R. Frazer/The Geographical Journal)
Chydeniusbreen as seen in a photograph taken in 1923 (Source: R. Frazer/The Geographical Journal).

Ny-Friesland in east Spitsbergen has received limited attention from scientists, with little data having been recorded since the 1923 expedition. As such, the team of undergraduates worked with researchers from Oxford University and the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) to collect different forms of data on the island’s environment, glaciers and climate.

The expedition was inspired by the discovery of original maps and photos from the 1923 expedition in the archives of the Oxford University Exploration Club. All of the team members, James Lam, Jamie Gardiner, Will Hartz and Liam Garrison, have personal skiing and mountaineering experience spanning three different continents. Nevertheless, they undertook nine months of rigorous training and extensive preparations to ensure the success of both the scientific and physically strenuous aspects of the expedition.

Apart from skiing trips, the training regime included tyre-dragging in Port Meadow, Oxford. (Source: Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced)
Apart from skiing trips, the training regime included tyre-dragging in Port Meadow, Oxford (Source: Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced).

During the trip, the students photographed, recorded and collected DNA samples from vascular plants encountered at ten different locations between Duym point in the east and the terminus of Nordernskiold glacier in the west. These samples are currently being analyzed at UNIS and will be added to the Svalbard Flora database. They will provide valuable contributions to understandings of dispersal patterns on glaciers, particularly as there is only one other set of biological data for East Spitsbergen.

The camps of the teams on the 1923 and 2016 expeditions (Sources: R. Frazer/The Geographical Journal and Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced)
The camps of the teams on the 1923 and 2016 expeditions (Sources: R. Frazer/The Geographical Journal and Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced).

Using a drone, the students successfully mapped three sections of the Chydeniusbreen glacier. This will be used to create 3D maps of these areas, which will be compared to satellite data and the Norwegian Polar Institute’s models of the glacier to measure glacial change. The team was also able to successfully repeat 25 of the landscape photographs taken on the 1923 expedition. These will be used to practice photogrammetry, the science of measurements done using photographs, to be used in conjunction with the 3-D maps and satellite data to track glacial change in Ny-Friesland.

Two team members ascending the unclimbed west ridge of Newtontoppen (Source: Endre Før Gjermundsen/Spitsbergen Retraced)
Two team members ascending the unclimbed west ridge of Newtontoppen (Source: Endre Før Gjermundsen/Spitsbergen Retraced)

One of the aims of the 1923 expedition was to summit hitherto unclimbed peaks. In the same vein, the 2016 team summitted 8 different peaks, including a number of mountains climbed by the original expedition, such as Poincarétoppen, Mount Chernishev and Mount Irvine. The students also made the first ever ascent of the West Ridge of Newtontoppen, Svalbard’s highest mountain (5,666 ft). These efforts were carried out alongside the scientific aims of the expedition, with the team remaining camped in the base camp of Loven Plateau for a week in order to pursue repeat photography and data collection.

GlacierHub caught up with two of the team members for a short interview about the expedition and what the team intends to do now that they have returned.

GlacierHub: What happens now that the expedition is over?

James Lam, team leader: Now that the expedition is over, I am working to process the data that we collected. I’m collaborating with the Earth Sciences Department in Oxford as well as UNIS and the Norwegian Polar Institute. We hope to be able to publish our findings in due course. We are currently also working with Talesmith (a London-based production company specializing in natural history) to create a film or television series about the expedition.

GH: What was one of the most memorable things about this expedition?

James attempting to recover equipment in a storm (Source: Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced)
James attempting to recover equipment in a storm (Source: Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced)

JL: One of the most memorable parts of the expedition was a storm that we were caught in for about three weeks. Despite spending five hours digging into the glacier for shelter and building six foot walls with 100 km/h gusts, it was still too windy to put up the tents, so we were forced to spend the night in a survival shelter. After nine hours huddled together in the shelter, the wind finally died down enough to be able to put up the tents. Luckily, no critical equipment was broken, and we were able to continue after a rest day.

GH: How did it feel embarking on an expedition like this, given the somewhat controversial history of exploration by the British Empire?

A note that the 1923 expedition team left in a thermometer case on the summit of Mt Chernishev (Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced)
A note that the 1923 expedition team left in a thermometer case on the summit of Mt Chernishev (Liam Garrison/Spitsbergen Retraced).

Jamie Gardiner, team historian: There is quite an anti-intellectual tendency in some quarters to indiscriminately equate the history of exploration with that of imperialism. In 1923, Svalbard was not only terra incognita but terra nulla. Accordingly, it’s rather hard to construct any kind of narrative of exploitation of native peoples. As it happens, in 1925, Britain acted as a signatory of the Svalbard Treaty, which placed Svalbard under Norwegian sovereignty. The treaty expressly forbade militarization and granted unilateral rights to mineral exploitation provided the environmental priorities enshrined were upheld. [The treaty was crafted] without first understanding what it is that is conserved. Therein the mapping of Svalbard had such a key importance.


The team will be releasing a publicly available report about their expedition, along with a documentary to share their journey with a wider audience and compare their polar narrative with that found in excerpts of three diaries from the original expedition. The trailer can be viewed here. Updates about their progress and more spectacular photographs can also be viewed on their Facebook and Twitter pages.