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‘Unicorns of the Sea’ Are Under Threat Due To Arctic Shipping

Polar bears, on the other hand, seem to be the best equipped to deal with vessel traffic during September

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Personnel stand aboard the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica as it arrives into Nuuk, Greenland, after traversing the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, July 29, 2017.
Personnel stand aboard the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica as it arrives into Nuuk, Greenland, after traversing the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, July 29, 2017. VOA

The polar bear may be the classic poster child for climate change, but it is far from the only animal threatened by a warming Arctic. Because the region is warming two to three times more quickly than the rest of the planet, the rapidly melting sea ice is opening new shipping lanes. New research suggests increased vessel traffic through Arctic waters is putting narwhals and other cetaceans at risk.

The receding ice has cleared the historically dangerous Northwest Passage, and the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s northern coast, dramatically increasing maritime traffic in what was once relatively untouched ocean.

“We’re on the precipice,” Donna Hauser from the University of Alaska Fairbanks said. “We’re poised for a lot of vessel traffic to increase in the Arctic. Part of what motivated the study [was to] understand where we’re at and where we need to go.”

Hauser was interested in assessing the vulnerability of Arctic marine mammals to shipping activity, to protect both the species themselves and the people who rely on them. “All of these species are really important resources for indigenous communities throughout the Arctic as well as in Alaska and in the Alaskan Arctic in particular.”

Hauser and her co-authors looked at seven species: beluga whales, narwhals, bowhead whales, ringed seals, bearded seals, walruses, and polar bears. They created a vulnerability measure based on a combination of the animal’s exposure to shipping traffic and their general sensitivity. Importantly, these measures refer only to vulnerability during September, when sea ice is at its lowest point and most ships pass through Arctic waters.

Their research found that narwhals and other whale species were the most vulnerable to late summer ship traffic, and polar bears were the least, with pinnipeds (walruses and seals) in between.

That does not surprise Randall Reeves, chairman of the Marine Mammal Commission Committee of Scientific Advisors.

A bearded Arctic seal, nicknamed Tama-chan by local residents, swims in the waters of the Tsurumi River in Kawasaki, near Tokyo, Japan.
A bearded Arctic seal, nicknamed Tama-chan by local residents, swims in the waters of the Tsurumi River in Kawasaki, near Tokyo, Japan. VOA

“They [narwhals and belugas] are used to living in an extremely quiet world,” he told VOA.

The noise of ice-breaking ships and other maritime vessels is extremely disruptive to these cetaceans, as co-author Kristin Laidre of the Polar Ice Center points out.

“That underwater noise is a disturbance for marine mammals, especially different whale species that rely on sound to pretty much do everything,” she said.

Narwhals in particular are at risk because of their high exposure to vessels in the Northwest Passage which receives more traffic than the Northern Sea Route. The combined effect of high exposure and sensitivity mean these so-called unicorns of the sea are in the most perilous position of all the Arctic marine mammals, with other whales facing similar but less extreme circumstances.

Polar bears, on the other hand, seem to be the best equipped to deal with vessel traffic during September.

“At that time of year,” said Laidre, “polar bears tend to be either on land or they followed the pack ice north.”

A pod of narwhals is seen in central Baffin Bay off of the North Atlantic Ocean near Greenland.
A pod of narwhals is seen in central Baffin Bay off of the North Atlantic Ocean near Greenland. VOA

This means they were not exposed to the same level of noise and disruption as the marine mammals like whales and seals.

In addition, Hauser noted that polar bears “don’t use sound in the same way as the other marine mammals do and so some of those things that make the other species sensitive to vessels aren’t as big a factor for polar bears.”

This is the first study to compare effects of increased ship traffic across the major Arctic marine mammal species and determine which animals might be most in need of conservation efforts.

A pod of narwhals is seen in central Baffin Bay off of the North Atlantic Ocean near Greenland.
A pod of narwhals is seen in central Baffin Bay off of the North Atlantic Ocean near Greenland. VOA

“We’re no longer in an Arctic state that was experienced by [1845 British Captain Sir John] Franklin or some of those early Western explorers,” said Hauser. “There’s a whole suite of different aspects that are potentially impacting the Arctic marine mammal species.”

In order to help protect these ‘sentinel species’ and the whales in particular, the authors of the study suggest requiring ships to move at slower speeds to reduce strikes of whales that swim or rest at or just below the surface.

In addition, placing limits on the amount of noise vessels can make will protect whales’ delicate hearing.

“It’s not realistic to think we’re going to stop people from taking advantage of these passages through formerly pristine regions,” said conservationist Reeves. The ships are going to go there.”

Also read: Threat of untreated human waste lurking large on the “dancing deer” of Manipur

However, by understanding which marine mammals are at risk, researchers can help plan for an uncertain future. (VOA)

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Rise in Sea Level to Affect 36 Million People in India by 2050

Climate Central produced the model using machine learning

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Sea, India, Cities
The findings are based on a new digital elevation model called CoastalDEM which shows that many of the world's coastlines are far lower than has been generally known and that sea level rise could affect hundreds of millions of more people in the coming decades. Pixabay

A rise in the sea level may put some of India’s greatest cities, including Mumbai, in the flood-risk zone, affecting a total of 36 million people in the country by 2050 – about 31 million more than previously thought, warns a study.

Worldwide, rising sea levels could within three decades push chronic floods to affect 300 million people, according to research by the New Jersey-based science organisation Climate Central.

The researchers found that West Bengal and coastal Odisha are projected to be particularly vulnerable to floods by 2050, as is the city of Kolkata.

The findings are based on a new digital elevation model called CoastalDEM which shows that many of the world’s coastlines are far lower than has been generally known and that sea level rise could affect hundreds of millions of more people in the coming decades than previously understood. Climate Central produced the model using machine learning.

Sea, India, Cities
Worldwide, rising sea levels could within three decades push chronic floods to affect 300 million people, according to research by the New Jersey-based science organisation Climate Central. Pixabay

The threat is concentrated in coastal Asia and could have profound economic and political consequences within the lifetimes of people alive today, showed the findings of the study published in the journal Nature Communications.

As a result of heat-trapping pollution from human activities, rising sea levels could within three decades push chronic floods to affect 300 million people

China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand are home to the most people on land projected to be below average annual coastal flood levels by 2050.

Together, those six nations account for roughly 75 per cent of the 300 million people on land facing the same vulnerability at mid-century.

Also Read- Researchers Warn that Global Warming is Likely to Increase illness among individuals

Over the course of the twenty first century, global sea levels are projected to rise between about 2 and 7 feet, and possibly more.

“Based on sea level projections for 2050, land currently home to 300 million people will fall below the elevation of an average annual coastal flood. By 2100, land now home to 200 million people could sit permanently below the high tide line,” Climate Central said.

Adaptive measures such as construction of levees and other defences or relocation to higher ground could lessen these threats.

In the decades ahead, sea level rise could disrupt economies and trigger humanitarian crises around the world, said the study.

Sea, India, Cities
The researchers found that West Bengal and coastal Odisha are projected to be particularly vulnerable to floods by 2050, as is the city of Kolkata. Pixabay

Estimates of future economic losses from sea level rise vary depending on the amount of climate pollution and subsequent rise projected, as well as other factors, such as whether future population growth, innovation or migration are considered.

Also Read- New Tuberculosis Treatment for 150 Countries Including India and South Africa to Cost $1,040

Some projections indicate that flooding could cause tens of trillions of dollars in losses each year by the end of the century — or trillions per year, if extensive adaptation measures are implemented. (IANS)