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!

Village of Pangnirtung

The village of Pangnirtung on Baffin Island in August 2015.

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.

See VIDEO of Pangnirtung Fjord.

DJI_0007-Pano

The mouth of Pangnirtung Fjord completely blocked by ice. Photo credit: VDOS Global LLC (Virtual Data Operations Support).

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.

Fig 2. The bowhead whale research team with nowhere to go. [from left to right: Corey Accardo (Centre for Coastal Studies), Sarah Fortune (University of British Columbia & Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), Krista Kenyon (University of Manitoba & Fisheries and Oceans Canada), Thomas Seitz (VDOS Global), Peter Kilabuck (Peter’s Expediting and Outfitting), and Dr. Bill Koski (LGL Limited)]. Photo credit: VDOS Global LLC.

The bowhead whale research team all dressed up with nowhere to go. [from left to right: Corey Accardo (Centre for Coastal Studies), Sarah Fortune (University of British Columbia & Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), Krista Kenyon (University of Manitoba & Fisheries and Oceans Canada), Thomas Seitz (VDOS Global), Peter Kilabuck (Peter’s Expediting and Outfitting), and Dr. Bill Koski (LGL Limited)]. Photo credit: VDOS Global LLC.

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.

Fig. 3. UAS (unmanned aerial systems) image of the research team collecting zooplankton samples near the ice edge in Pangnirtung Fjord during late August. Photo credit: VDOS Global LLC.

UAS (unmanned aerial systems) image of the research team collecting zooplankton samples near the ice edge in Pangnirtung Fjord during late August. Photo credit: VDOS Global LLC.

 

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.


 

Contents | From the Lab | Into the Field | Crunching the Numbers |  This Just In