While several species will struggle to survive climate change, a few animals may benefit from the rising temperatures. Specifically, the moose and snowshoe hares in the Arctic regions would benefit from the increased availability of shrubs and similar foods.
A new study looked at these two animals and how climate change may be supporting the growth of their populations. The team found that with warming temperatures came the growth of more shrubs and with more shrubs came more moose and hares.
However, an increase in moose and snowshoe hares has its impacts on the area’s ecosystem and wildlife management. For example, it causes predators, like various birds of prey and the lynx, to become more frequent visitors. In addition, tundra species that prefer open habitats may decline as their habitat shrinks and they are out-competed by moose and hares.
Polar bears are spending more time on land than ever before. To be exact, bears around the Chuchki Sea are spending a month longer on land during the summer, according to a new study.
Research wildlife biologist with the Alaska Science Center of the U.S. Geological Survey and lead author Karyn Rode says:
“They are spending approximately 30 more days on land, which is pretty substantial in the summer. Where they come on land during the summer is changing because of the ice conditions…They’re either sitting, laying or standing. They aren’t moving around very much to forage,” she said. “When we look at this activity sensor, it’s incredibly low.”
The researchers analyzed data from radio collars on 103 female polar bears between 1986-1996 and compared them to data from 47 bears in 2008-2013. They found that bears now spend a month longer on land, that almost twice as many bears spend their summers on land and that more than 90% of time on land is spent resting.
So far, this has not affected the bears’ nutrition, but there is debate about whether polar bears can sustain themselves on a land-based diet. As the summer sea ice continues to melt, polar bears will likely spend more and more time onshore and, unfortunately, recent studies show that polar bears’ cannot sustain themselves during long periods of famine. In addition, more time onshore will increase the chance of conflict with humans.
“The results of our study are consistent with studies in other regions where polar bears have experienced substantial sea ice loss. As sea ice loss occurs, polar bears increasingly use land habitats where they have minimal to no access to their marine mammal prey and are increasingly likely to interact with humans.”
As the Arctic sea ice melts, it makes room for the ocean’s apex predators, killer whales, who even feed on other whales. More and more sightings of killer whales, or orcas, have been reported in the Canadian Arctic.
Killer whales are not well-adapted to the Arctic, as evidenced by their large dorsal fins. But because of climate change, they are able to access waters in the Arctic Ocean that they were unable to previously. This has raised concerns about the killer whales altering the region’s ecosystem, on top of concerns about climate change in general.
“Receding sea ice and the resulting increase of orcas in the Arctic are ecosystem impacts we are already experiencing as a result of climate change. When new predators like orcas move in, they can change the entire ecosystem. In the face of these ever increasing, deeply concerning changes, we need leadership and action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to protect the best interest of people, the Arctic and the entire planet.”
So far, killer whales have only ventured into the Canadian Arctic. But it’s possible they will continue to move further north, deeper into the Arctic Ocean, in the future. More research is needed to confirm their exact movements.
Climate change is the latest accomplice to whale hunting: as temperatures rise and sea ice melts, it opens more paths for people to find and kill whales.
This summer marked the first time that an Icelandic whaling vessel was able to travel through the Arctic’s Northeast Passage and hunt endangered fin whales. Near record-low numbers of sea ice opened the passageway, which is not normally accessible to larger vessels.
Ignoring an international ban on hunting these endangered whales, the vessel carried 1,800 tons of frozen fin whale meat to sell in Japan. It left Tromso, Norway on August 1 and arrived in Osaka, Japan later that month with almost 40% of the whale meat the entire country consumes annually in just one shipment.
This is a detrimental in several ways. First, a northern route will allow whaling vessels a shorter path to Japan, their main buyer. Second, it raises concerns for activist groups like Sea Shepherd who focus mostly in the Indian and Southern Oceans and can’t expand north.
Arctic ice is melting at an extreme pace, due to climate change, and it’s threatening the walrus. The melting ice is so drastic, it is forcing thousands of walruses to crowd onto the shore of a remote barrier island off Alaska.
The first reported sighting of the walruses came from a photographer on August 23 on the shore of the Chukchi Sea. It was then confirmed 4 days later by villagers in the remote area of Point Lay, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Such huge gatherings, called haul-outs, are dangerous because walruses are easily spooked by aircrafts or onlookers, which could cause potentially fatal stampedes. Last year, as many as 40,000, mostly females and their young, were forced ashore – the largest known haul-out of its kind in the U.S. Arctic. – and around 60 young walruses were killed because of crowding and stampedes.
The Federal Aviation Authority had to re-route flights and tell pilots to keep their distance to avoid stampedes. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services spokeswoman Andrea Medeiros told The Guardian:
“Walruses often flee haul-outs in response to the sight, sound, or odor of humans or machines. Walruses are particularly sensitive to changes in engine noise and are more likely to stampede off beaches when planes turn or fly low overhead.”
“We do not believe that these sorts of visits are in the best interest of the walruses and they do not align with the haul out protection role we have developed and measures we set in place to prevent disturbances.”
Since 2000, these forced migrations and haul-outs have become an more and more common. But this year, the sea ice fell to new lows because of rising temperatures and abnormal weather patterns. Some scientists now believe that the Arctic could be ice-free during the summer months by the 2030s, which will have detrimental effects on surrounding human and wildlife populations.
The U.S., Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway have teamed up to save the polar bear. The five countries – each with territory above the Arctic Circle and all signatories to a 1973 treaty to preserve the species – signed a new agreement to protect the bears as climate change melts its home.
The agreement involves a new 10-year plan that brings the countries together in a pan-Arctic approach. Scientists will work together to collect better estimates of current polar bear populations and evaluate the effects of climate change, pollution and disease. They will meet every two years to report on the progress and collaborate further.
“After 40 years of cooperation, this is the first time when parties came together to agree on one circumpolar action plan for polar bears. It doesn’t mean for 40 years they weren’t doing anything. But there was a real need for a pan-Arctic approach.”
When the countries first signed the 1973 treaty to protect polar bears, the major threat was uncontrolled hunting. Now, the biggest threat is climate change and warming temperatures in the Arctic, as polar bears overall lack the ability to survive in warmer temperatures
Specifically, higher temperatures result in melting sea ice, which takes away the polar bears only habitat and the habitat of its prey. Melting ice has also stranded polar bears on land for longer periods in the year, leaving them with less access to food and more risk from people.
This summer proved to be another near record melting of sea ice. An image of an emaciated polar bear in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago by German photographer Kerstin Langenberger shows just how terrible this issue has become. She posted the image to Facebook on August 20 and it quickly went viral, becoming the latest symbol of climate change. Sadly, Langenberger says it was not an unusual sight:
Polar bears cannot survive in the wild unless the Arctic remains cold enough and covered by a good deal of ice year-round. But temperatures will continue to rise and ice will continue to melt if we don’t take action. Over the next few decades, countries around the world must cut burning coal and oil. If not, scientists believe the Arctic summer sea ice will disappear by the middle of the century and with it, the polar bears will likely disappear too.
In July, the U.S. government gave its approval to Royal Dutch Shell to begin exploratory drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska. In September, Shell abandoned its efforts for the “foreseeable future.”
The announcement came after weeks of exploration over the summer, where drilling down to 6,800 feet indicated that oil and gas findings were “not sufficient to warrant further exploration.”
Drilling in the Arctic region would have threatened a great deal of wildlife and people. The region is home to populations of whales, walruses, polar bears, seabirds and other wildlife, as well as local people and communities.
The original drilling site itself would have been risky, too. It was 70 miles from the shore of Alaska and 1,000 miles away from the nearest U.S. Coast Guard station. This, along with with the thick ice and rough sea conditions, would have made it very difficult to detect and contain an accident or oil spill.
Moreover, Shell has had trouble drilling in the recent past, despite spending an estimated $7 billion on exploring the Arctic for seven years. Problems have included damaged vessels, malfunctioning safety equipment, on-board fires and, most noteworthy, the loss of control of its drilling rig in January 2013. That rig ended up grounding on a pristine island in the Gulf of Alaska, proving just how damaging drilling can be even without oil spills.
“Shell’s experience illustrates that further investments in oil development in the Arctic are not worth the risk to Arctic life and livelihoods. We hope this will provide a reality check to other companies considering the unpredictable proposition of Arctic drilling, and that investors will transition their funds instead toward low-carbon solutions.”
In addition, the Obama Administration cancelled two potential Arctic offshore oil lease sales in the Chukchi and Beaufort sea that were also jeopardizing the region. These lease sales were originally scheduled for 2016 and 2017, under the current five-year offshore oil and gas leasing program for 2012-2017. The decision to cancel came in late October and was based on poor market conditions and low industry interest. Fortunately, this decision will mitigate future threats to the region.
These actions represent big wins for environmental and conservation groups like Greenpeace in the battle against fossil fuel burning and greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, they are big wins for the wildlife that resides in the Arctic, the local people and the environment in general.
A whale diving into the depths of our planet’s ocean not only shows us the beauty of the world we live in but also the biodiversity of Earth. A great photograph to celebrate the last hours of Earth Day.
Hope you all celebrated our planet today. Again, happy Earth Day to all.