MARINE MAMMAL RESEARCH NEWSLETTER | September 2015 (Issue 13)
Into the Field
Nothing but ice all summer long
Bowhead whale researchers had contingency plans for everything that might go wrong while in the field. However, they never anticipated being shut down by sea ice in summer!
The Arctic is warming at more than double the global average rate—causing precipitous declines in the cover and thickness of sea ice. However, this year, Sarah Fortune, part of a team of researchers studying the summer feeding behavior of bowhead whales from Pangnirtung, Nunavut—just 40 kilometers (25 miles) shy of the Arctic Circle—saw nothing but ice all summer long. In fact, there was so much ice in Cumberland Sound that the researchers and local hunters were unable to leave Pangnirtung Fjord—something that local elders could not recall happening for 75 years.
The extreme weather events that have happened around the world in recent years are making it increasingly clear that climate change is more than just about warming. This year in the Arctic for example, warm air temperatures caused sea ice to rapidly melt throughout much of the Western Arctic, while strong winds and colder than average air temperatures in the Eastern Arctic resulted in unusually high concentrations of ice near Hudson and Baffin Bay.
Typically, Cumberland Sound is ice-free during the summer, allowing hunters to travel by boat to their cabins along the shoreline of the Sound where they catch Arctic char and hunt for beluga, walrus, ringed seals and harp seals. However, hunters this year had to remain within their local fjord where char and marine mammals were scarce. To make matters worse, heavy ice delayed the barge carrying needed provisions for the community, which caused the grocery store shelves to become increasingly bare as the summer rolled on.Persistent southerly winds caused the extreme ice conditions to continue into September. Unfortunately, this meant that the team of bowhead whale researchers that spent their summer in Pangnirtung returned home empty-handed. More worrisome is that the unfavorable winds and colder temperatures have left many local fishermen and hunters with near empty freezers.
If nothing else, this summer has shown that we are living in an increasingly uncertain time and that the future of communities whose livelihoods are so tightly tied to the sea are more uncertain now than ever before.
Sarah Fortune is a PhD candidate studying the foraging ecology of bowhead whales.