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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
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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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Arctic Had Its Second Warmest Year On Record: U.S. Agency

Trump last year announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris Deal agreed by nearly 200 nations to combat climate change

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Methane bubbles up from the thawed permafrost at the bottom of the thermokarst lake through the ice at its surface. VOA

The Arctic had its second-hottest year on record in 2018, part of a warming trend that may be dramatically changing earth’s weather patterns, according to a repor treleased on Tuesday by the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Arctic air temperatures for the past five years have exceeded all previous records since 1900,” according to the annual NOAA study, the 2018 Arctic Report Card, which said the year was second only to 2016 in overall warmth in the region.

It marks the latest in a series of warnings about climate change from U.S. government bodies, even as President Donald Trump has voiced skepticism about the phenomenon and has pushed a pro-fossil fuels agenda.

The study said the Arctic warming continues at about double the rate of the rest of the planet, and that the trend appears to be altering the shape and strength of the jet stream air current that influences weather in the Northern Hemisphere.

Arctic
Researchers look out from the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica as the sun sets over sea ice in the Victoria Strait along the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, July 21, 2017. VOA

“Growing atmospheric warmth in the Arctic results in a sluggish and unusually wavy jet-stream that coincided with abnormal weather events,” it said, noting that the changing patterns have often brought unusually frigid temperatures to areas south of the Arctic Circle.

Some examples are “a swarm of severe winter storms in the eastern United States in 2018, and the extreme cold outbreak in Europe in March 2018 known as ‘the Beast from the East.'”

Environmentalists have long warned of rapid warming in the Arctic, saying it threatens imperiled species like polar bears, and is a harbinger of the broader impacts of climate change on the planet.

Scientists have warned that the region could suffer trillions of dollars worth of climate change-related damage to infrastructure in the coming decades.

But the melting of Arctic ice has piqued the interests of polar nations like the United States, Canada and Russia by opening new shipping routes and expanding access to a region believed to be rich in petroleum and minerals.

Arctic
FILE – A young polar bear walks on ice over deep waters of the Arctic Ocean. (Credit: Shawn Harper) VOA

The United States and Russia have both expressed an interest in boosting Arctic drilling, and Russia has bolstered its military presence in the north.

The NOAA report comes weeks after more than a dozen U.S. government agencies released a study concluding that climate change is driven by human consumption of fossil fuels and will cost the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century.

Also Read: Climate Change Left Its Fingerprint On The Most Extreme Disasters in 2017

Trump, who has been rolling back Obama-era environmental and climate protections to maximize production of domestic fossil fuels, said of the update to the National Climate Assessment: “I don’t believe it.”

Trump last year announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris Deal agreed by nearly 200 nations to combat climate change, arguing the accord would kill jobs and provide little tangible environmental benefit. (VOA)