All mammals, including people, need air, water and food to survive. Arctic marine mammals need one more thing: ice, and a lot of it. A range of Arctic animals face a precarious future with the well-documented loss of sea ice at the top of the world.
Research published in Conservation Biology in March — by a consortium of international and U.S. researchers — examines how the loss of Arctic sea ice affects populations of many different mammals.
The research team, led by the University of Washington, gathered population data for walruses, polar bears, three species of whales and six species of seals — information that previously was spotty or nonexistent.
Polar bears and ice-living seals are the species most at risk from diminished Arctic sea ice, said University of Washington polar scientist Kristin Laidre, who was lead author of the Conservation Biology article.
“These animals require sea ice,” Laidre said. “They need ice to find food, find mates and reproduce, to rear their young. It’s their platform of life. It is very clear those species are going to feel the effects the hardest.”
Working with satellite images dating back to 1979, the research team calculated the changes in spring sea ice retreat and winter ice expansion. The results varied across 12 Arctic subregions, but the summer ice period was longer in most regions by five to 10 weeks. The researchers report the Barents Sea off Russia had the longest increase in summer, pushing it to five months there.
Arctic scientists know that less ice exposes greater areas of dark ocean waters. Those waters absorb more of the sun’s heat, warming the ocean waters even more, further contributing to the meltdown.
The authors suggest a variety of measures for wildlife conservation and management to protect the region’s marine mammals. They conclude that slowing Arctic melting through reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is the ultimate solution.
These findings will inform the eight member nations of the Arctic Council, which will convene in the Arctic city of Iqaluit, Canada, April 24–25. The city is a center for the indigenous Iqalummiut people, whose lives, sustenance and culture are entwined with the Arctic ecosystem. Native Arctic peoples legally hunt more than 75 percent of the species studied in the research.
The United States, seven other Arctic nations and representatives of indigenous Arctic peoples use the council as a cooperative forum for discussion of sustainable development, environmental protection, shipping and other issues unique to the region.