Climate Change Has Wiped Out Most of the World’s Oldest Sea Ice

December 11, 2018

There is no clearer sign of Arctic transformation than the age of its sea ice. Findings released on Tuesday show that ice has never been younger, and while humans may envy its youth, it’s an incredibly bad sign for the region.

Rising air and ocean temperatures have sent old sea ice into a death spiral. It now stands as a shadow of its former self, its area diminished by 95 percent from where it stood just a little more than three decades ago.

Federal scientists led by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) chronicled the changes afoot in the annual Arctic Report Card at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting. The signs the Arctic is a metamorphosing in the face of climate change are everywhere. Last year was the second-warmest on record for the region. Ice coverage is shrinking. The Atlantic is invading the Arctic Ocean. Permafrost is melting. But it’s the state of old sea ice that best tells the story of how human activities have driven the Arctic to a new state.

Old ice tends to be thick and hold fast, acting as an anchor for icepack during the summer melt season. But solid ice has proven to be no match for climate change, which has warmed the Arctic twice as fast as the rest of the world. Heat waves coupled with powerful storms have broken up old ice’s grip on the Arctic.

The Arctic Report Card shows that in March 1985, ice four years or older covered 980,700 square miles. This past March, it covered a measly 130,000 square miles. That’s the loss of a little more than three Texases-worth of old ice, and old Arctic ice now covers less than 1 percent of the Arctic Ocean.

In its place, young ice has taken over, leading to “a decreasing trend in the minimum ice extent” each summer according to the report card. Scientists estimate that the Arctic could see ice-free summers by 2030 if carbon emissions continue their rise. The impact of the ice loss doesn’t just spell bad news for polar bears, which are leaving ice floes for land in search of food.

The decline of ice opens up a new front in the race to exploit the Earth’s resources as oil, gas, and mineral reserves become more accessible, and in turn, increases the chance of conflict over these resources. This is a huge concern for the U.S. as well as other Arctic nations. But at the press briefing announcing the updated report card, Rear Admiral Timothy Gaulladet, the acting head of the NOAA, reportedly said that the agency hasn’t briefed President Trump on climate change or its impacts on the Arctic.

The president, of course, has some thoughts on climate change that could politely be called backasswards, and it’s pretty clear a single briefing isn’t going to change them. But the fact that nobody from the agency in charge of putting out the premiere report about the challenges the U.S. faces is still hugely worrisome.


Orca ‘apocalypse’: half of killer whales doomed to die from pollution

September 27, 2018

At least half of the world’s killer whale populations are doomed to extinction due to toxic and persistent pollution of the oceans, according to a major new study.

Although the poisonous chemicals, PCBs, have been banned for decades, they are still leaking into the seas. They become concentrated up the food chain; as a result, killer whales, the top predators, are the most contaminated animals on the planet. Worse, their fat-rich milk passes on very high doses to their newborn calves.

PCB concentrations found in killer whales can be 100 times safe levels and severely damage reproductive organs, cause cancer and damage the immune system. The new research analysed the prospects for killer whale populations over the next century and found those offshore from industrialised nations could vanish as soon as 30-50 years.

Among those most at risk are the UK’s last pod, where a recent death revealed one of the highest PCB levels ever recorded. Others off Gibraltar, Japan and Brazil and in the north-east Pacific are also in great danger. Killer whales are one of the most widespread mammals on earth but have already been lost in the North Sea, around Spain and many other places.

“It is like a killer whale apocalypse,” said Paul Jepson at the Zoological Society of London, part of the international research team behind the new study. “Even in a pristine condition they are very slow to reproduce.” Healthy killer whales take 20 years to reach peak sexual maturity and 18 months to gestate a calf.

PCBs were used around the world since the 1930s in electrical components, plastics and paints but their toxicity has been known for 50 years. They were banned by nations in the 1970s and 1980s but 80% of the 1m tonnes produced have yet to be destroyed and are still leaking into the seas from landfills and other sources.

The international Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants came into force in 2004 to tackle the issue, but Jepson said the clean-up is way behind schedule. “I think the Stockholm Convention is failing,” he said. “The only area where I am optimistic is the US. They alone produced 50% of all PCBs, but they have been getting PCB levels down consistently for decades. All we have done in Europe is ban them and then hope they go away.”

The researchers said PCBs are just one pollutant found in killer whales, with “a long list of additional known and as yet unmeasured contaminants present”. Further problems for killer whales include the loss of key prey species such as tuna and sharks to overfishing and also growing underwater noise pollution.

The new research, published in the journal Science, examined PCB contamination in 351 killer whales, the largest analysis yet. The scientists then took existing data on how PCBs affect calf survival and immune systems in whales and used this to model how populations will fare in the future. “Populations of Japan, Brazil, Northeast Pacific, Strait of Gibraltar, and the United Kingdom are all tending toward complete collapse,” they concluded.

Lucy Babey, deputy director at conservation group Orca, said: “Our abysmal failures to control chemical pollution ending up in our oceans has caused a killer whale catastrophe on an epic scale. It is essential that requirements to dispose safely of PCBs under the Stockholm Convention are made legally binding at the next meeting in May 2019 to help stop this scandal.” Scientists have previously found “extraordinary” levels of toxic pollution even in the 10km-deep Mariana trench in the Pacific Ocean.

“This new study is a global red alert on the state of our oceans,” said Jennifer Lonsdale, chair of the Wildlife and Countryside Link’s whales group. “If the UK government wants its [proposed] Environment Act to be world-leading, it must set ambitious targets on PCB disposal and protect against further chemical pollution of our waters.”

The research shows that killer whale populations in the high north, off Norway, Iceland, Canada and the Faroes, are far less contaminated due to their distance from major PCB sources. ”The only thing that gives me hope about killer whales in the longer term is, yes, we are going to lose populations all over the industrialised areas, but there are populations that are doing reasonably well in the Arctic,” said Jepson.

If a global clean-up, which would take decades, can be achieved, these populations could eventually repopulate empty regions, he said, noting that killer whales are very intelligent, have strong family bonds and hunt in packs. “It is an incredibly adaptive species – they have been able to [live] from the Arctic to the Antarctic and everywhere in between.”

He praised the billion-dollar “superfund” clean-ups in the US, such as in the Hudson River and Puget Sound, where the polluter has paid most of the costs: “The US is going way beyond the Stockholm Convention because they know how toxic PCBs are.”

Source: The


June 20, 2018

Change creates winners and losers, and that includes climate change, especially at the top of the world. On the losing side of the environmental ledger we find the polar bear, floating glumly on its ever-shrinking ice floe. On the winning side, a new apex predator is cruising northern waters.

Since 1984, the Arctic Ocean’s multiyear ice pack has shrunk from 61 percent coverage to 34 percent, according to a National Snow & Ice Data Center report. Bad for bears roaming a frozen realm to hunt ringed seals and other prey; good for killer whales, or orcas, which in years past have avoided the region because their 6-foot-high dorsal fins make it difficult for them to zoom around under the ice in pursuit of fish, sharks and other prey.

But these carnivorous members of the dolphin family, which are up to 32 feet long and tend to prowl in packs of about 10, now are exploiting a new hunting ground way up north, particularly in the eastern Canadian Arctic, around Baffin Island and Hudson Bay, notes Donna Hauser, research assistant professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

And there’s more bad news for bears. Orca prey includes ringed seals — a favorite food of a polar bear population already stressed by vanishing ice. Also on the menu are such whale species as narwhal, beluga and bowhead. “The open water is an advantage for the killer whales as they have a longer window of time to hunt,” says Steve Ferguson, research scientist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

The orcas are already making their presence felt. A 2017 report published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of Americaconcludes that “the presence of killer whales significantly changes the behavior and distribution of narwhal.”

A factor related to shrinking ice is also disrupting the region. The volume of warmer Pacific water flowing into the Arctic Ocean via the Bering Strait has surged 70 percent over the past decade and now equals 50 times the annual flow of the Mississippi River, according to a paper published this year in the journal Progress in Oceanography. An increasing northerly flow is also occurring on the Atlantic side of the basin.

That’s helped other opportunistic species wend their way north. Humpback whales, marine mammals typically found in the sub-Arctic, have been sighted off Alaska’s North Slope for the first time. To the east, mackerel, cod and other fish native to northern European coasts are migrating deeper into the Arctic Basin, toward Siberia. Newly invasive bird species like the crested and least auklet, northern fulmar and short-tailed shearwater are pushing aside black-legged kittiwakes, thick-billed murres, glaucous gulls and other traditional summer residents of the northland.

Given that sea ice helps cool the planet by reflecting sunlight back into space, its loss almost surely will alter climate and weather beyond the Arctic. As yet, scientists aren’t quite sure how. But there’s a chance that when the orcas are winning, the rest of us may be losing.


Gangs of aggressive killer whales are shaking down Alaska fishing boats for their fish: report

June 19, 2017

The orcas will wait all day for a fisher to accumulate a catch of halibut, and then deftly rob them blind. They will relentlessly stalk individual fishing boats, sometimes forcing them back into port.

Most chilling of all, this is new: After decades of relatively peaceful coexistence with cod and halibut fishers off the coast of Alaska, the region’s orcas appear to be turning on them in greater numbers.

“We’ve been chased out of the Bering Sea,” said Paul Clampitt, Washington State-based co-owner of the F/V Augustine.

Like many boats, the Augustine has tried electronic noisemakers to ward off the animals, but the orcas simply got used to them.

“It became a dinner bell,” said Clampitt.

John McHenry, owner of the F/V Seymour, described orca pods near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands as being like a “motorcycle gang.” 

“You’d see two of them show up, and that’s the end of the trip. Pretty soon all 40 of them would be around you,” he said. 

report this week in the Alaska Dispatch News outlined instances of aggressive orcas harassing boats relentlessly — even refusing to leave after a desperate skipper cut the engine and drifted silently for 18 hours.

“It’s gotten completely out of control,” Alaska fisherman Jay Hebert told the paper.

Fishing lines are also being pillaged by sperm whales, the large square-headed whale best known as the white whale in Moby Dick.

“Since 1997, reports of depredation have increased dramatically,” noted a report by the Southeast Alaska Sperm Whale Avoidance Project.

A remarkable 2006 video by the Avoidance Project captured one of the 50,000 kg whales delicately shaking fish loose from a line. After a particularly heavy assault by sperm whales, fishers are known to pull up lines in which up to 90 per cent of the catch has disappeared or been mangled.

Source: National

Arctic killer whales alter narwhal distribution and activity

February 21, 2017


Narwhals stay active and close to shore to avoid killer whales that have begun to enter areas with declining sea ice cover in Canada’s eastern Arctic, according to a study led by a University of Alaska Fairbanks scientist.

Assistant Professor Greg Breed of the UAF Institute of Arctic Biology, along with Cory Matthews of the University of Manitoba and Steven Ferguson of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, discovered the narwhal behavior. For several weeks in summer 2009, they tracked a family group of killer whales simultaneously with seven narwhals in Baffin Island’s Admiralty Inlet.

When killer whales were anywhere within approximately 60 miles (100 kilometers), narwhals avoided them by staying close to shore in shallower water. The narwhals also tended to make longer, faster movements. As soon as killer whales left the area, the narwhals moved offshore to deeper water and decreased their movement.

“The mere presence of killer whales in a system can cause relatively large and persistent changes in behavior and space use in prey species,” Breed wrote. These changes persisted for the entire time killer whales were present in the inlet, not just when they were close to or attacking the narwhals.

Narwhals live deep in the Arctic pack ice. Until recently, this kept them safe from killer whales for most of the year. Killer whales prey on narwhals and many other marine mammals. They have become increasingly common in the Arctic where they were previously largely blocked by sea ice.

Degraded sea ice now allows killer whales earlier access to the Arctic in areas where they historically ranged and new access to many areas where they had never been present before, such as Canada’s Hudson Bay.

The study was the first time scientists had simultaneously tracked both predator and prey marine mammals to understand their interaction.

Most of the world’s narwhals live in northern Canada and western Greenland, so a negative impact from killer whales might have a significant impact on the total population.

If narwhals change their behavior in response to killer whales, they could feed less, experience more stress, expend more energy or raise fewer young. Other effects could cascade through Arctic ecosystems.

There are implications for wildlife management as well.

“Researchers and managers using tracking data to infer preferred habitat need to carefully consider how predators affect space use,” said Breed. “Preferred habitat might instead represent a refuge from predators” and not necessarily the best places for foraging, resting, or caring for young.

The results were published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In addition to UAF, the authors were from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, the Assiniboine Park Zoo and Higdon Wildlife Consulting. Funding was provided by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ocean Tracking Network, International Governance Strategy, Oceans North, Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, WWF Canada, ArcticNet, the Carlsberg Foundation, the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Polar Continental Shelf Program and the University of Manitoba.