Tale of Two Seals: Winners and Losers in a Warming Arctic

By Tom Yulsman | February 15, 2015 3:46 pm
A ringed seal pup outfitted with a satellite-linked transmitter. The pup was released as part of a project to understand the species' habitat ranges throughout the year. (Photograph: Michael Cameron/NOAA)

A ringed seal pup outfitted with a satellite-linked transmitter just prior to being released as part of a project to understand the species’ habitat ranges throughout the year. (Photograph: Michael Cameron/NOAA)

Editor’s note: With the Arctic warming faster than any other region on Earth, floating sea ice in the region has been in decline: The average area of Arctic sea ice shrank at a rate of 57,000 square kilometers each year between 1996 and last year. That’s an area slightly larger than the state of Michigan.

For the animals and other living things that manage to scrape a living in the harsh Arctic environment, you might think that this would be welcome new. And you’d be right — for some species, but most definitely not for others. As scientists learn more about the impacts of human-caused warming in the far north, they are gaining a clearer picture of both the winners and losers. This guest post examines two examples: ringed and harbor seals. It’s by Gloria Dickie, a master’s student in the environmental journalism program I run at the University of Colorado. This is her second post reported from the Arctic Frontiers science conference in Tromsø, Norway. (You can find her first one here.)

——  ⊕  —–

Not all seals are created equal, especially when it comes to impacts from climate change and energy development in the Arctic.

Consider the ringed seal. These blubbery blobs are heavily ice-dependent. They’re the only seal species in the Arctic to forge breathing holes in the ice with their claws (through as much as 7 feet of ice!). They also rely on a floating slabs of sea ice as stable platforms for both resting and reproduction.

In fact, to rear their young, ringed seals actually build caves in snow drifts on floating sea ice.

As Charmain Hamilton, a researcher at the Norwegian Polar Institute and University of Tromsø, puts it:

Ringed seals are intimately associated with sea ice for almost every aspect of their existence: pupping, nursing, moulting, resting and some of the foraging all take place associated with sea ice.

So if sea ice continues to shrink, so too could the population of ringed seals. And that would affect other species, most especially the polar bear, for whom the ringed seal is not just a tasty snack but often the primary source of food.

Hamilton studies ringed seals’ relationship with ice and snow in the waters off Svalbard, an Arctic archipelago north of the Norwegian mainland. By fixing the animals with satellite-relay data loggers, Hamilton has been able to monitor their activity.

As part of this study, she and her colleagues were able to compare how the animals fared during two periods: 2002-2003 and 2010-2012. During the earlier period, sea ice conditions were more or less “normal.” But starting in 2006, “the sea-ice situation in Svalbard changed dramatically, and the new reduced-ice situation has prevailed in the years since,” according to Hamilton.

Summer sea-ice extent has shifted from a position over the continental shelf around Svalbard to a new northward position over the deep Arctic Ocean Basin. Moreover, the amount of ice that forms in the fjords in western Spitsbergen has decreased significantly.

These changes seem to have triggered a sharp increase in “foraging costs” for ringed seals between 2010 and 2012. For example, the seals have been traveling much further north into the deep Arctic in search of sea ice. In fact, one individual in particular embarked on a northward journey that ultimately totaled a staggering 5,000 kilometers — equivalent to a transatlantic journey between New York City and Ireland.

The seals are not only having to travel more to find sea ice. They are also spending more time diving for food and less time resting on ice, refusing to haul out to take a break until they’re satiated.

Unless ringed seals can compensate for this increased activity by gaining more energy from their diet, they could turn out to be one of the losers in a warming Arctic. And as a keystone species, their decline would have widespread effects. As Hamilton and her colleagues put it:

Ringed seals are a central component of the arctic food web and changes in their abundance will reverberate through the arctic ecosystem.

A harbor seal at Tromsø, Norway's Polaria aquarium. (Photo: ©Gloria Dickie)

A harbor seal at the Polaria aquarium in Tromsø, Norway. (Photo: ©Gloria Dickie)

Svalbard is also home to the northernmost population of the harbor seal, which boasts an impressive latitudinal and longitudinal range. 

Here, harbor seals are genetically isolated from mainland populations and protected from the human exploitation that has weakened some colonies elsewhere. More importantly, harbor seals do not require sea ice to complete their life cycle. 

Marie-Anne Blanchet, a researcher with the Norwegian Polar Institute, has been mapping the activity budgets of harbor seals in and around a small group of islands off the west coast of Spitsbergen in Svalbard.

She found that unlike ringed seals, which can travel thousands of kilometers, harbour seals prefer to stay within 50 kilometers (31 miles) of the western coastline, and traveled no more than 228 kilometers (141 miles) from their initial tagging site, seemingly constrained by the continental shelf break. Furthermore, the seals seldom entered the regions’ deep fjord systems. 

Blanchet also discovered some surprising information on the seals’ relationship with ice. Despite their independence from sea ice, she found harbor seals can still tolerate relatively high ice concentrations and make use of ice floes for resting. But they also move around much more when there is a lot of sea ice, since unlike the ringed seal, harbour seals can’t make use of breathing holes. If they don’t want to be trapped, they need to keep moving. 

Accordingly, warming oceans and reduced ice cover mean more potential useable areas for harbour seals, “making them an ecological winner in this region of the Arctic,” Blanchet says.

ADVERTISEMENT
  • mememine

    Exaggerating a crisis and issuing CO2 death threats to billions of innocent children is a war crime for history to judge. Nice work “progressiveness”

    -The pause in global warming is now old enough to vote.

    -Deniers have successfully prevented climate action for 34 years.

    -Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians.

    -Not one CO2 scientist is willing to say they are not “allowed” to say climate change is “proven” because of the “scientific method.”

    • Mike Richardson

      Nice to see you use the term “denier” yourself. Admitting you deny reality is the first step towards bringing a little honesty into the discussion. But “CO2 death threats”? Really? And no, there hasn’t been a pause in warming. We still have a little work to do on that honest debate thing, apparently

      • Suzanne Dixon MPH RD

        Well said. Just because people ignore reams of data, doesn’t mean the data cease to exist. I highly recommend this article, which puts the denial problem into context: http://tinyurl.com/lpmlo2p
        Apparently, an opinion can be scientific fact.

        • Mike Richardson

          Thank you. A very informative article. If nothing else, I now have a term to associate with something I see a lot of on some of these posts — the Dunning-Kruger effect. It really seems to manifest on any article dealing with climate change, particularly.

          • Suzanne Dixon MPH RD

            Glad you liked it. This guy does a masterful job of explaining what so many of us who believe in science experience, when we talk to others who are happy to dismiss science because they just “know” they are right. I have presented evidence, from scientific journals and publications about this topic, only to have deniers say, “who’s evidence?” Ummm, how about evidence that is based on physics, chemistry, and geology? I work in public health, and run into this in the vaccine debate as well. Very frustrating.

          • Suzanne Dixon MPH RD

            Not sure if you’ve followed my discussion with another commenter, but I have to say, I’ve learned my lesson. I won’t be commenting on any story related to climate change again anytime soon. A great example of negative operant conditioning… I decide not to comment ever again on this topic online (the behavior), in order to avoid being pulled into a painfully unproductive discussion (removal of the aversive stimulus). According to BF Skinner, a response or behavior is strengthened by
            stopping, removing, or avoiding a negative outcome or aversive stimulus. Yep, that’s what just happened. I was negatively conditioned.

          • Mike Richardson

            Suzanne, you fought the good fight, but I’ve learned you might as well have fun with them. You won’t change their minds, but at least you can get a good laugh as you watch them respond to increasingly ridiculous statements. I’m nowhere near as well educated in the behavioral sciences as you are, but I learned some fun tricks from the Daily Show and Colbert Report. Don’t be a stranger.

          • Suzanne Dixon MPH RD

            Ahhh yes, best to avoid taking it too seriously. Honestly though, the lack of civility is pretty bad. Then I find myself replying in kind. Ick. So sad that we are bidding farewell to John Stewart now too!

        • wangweilin

          Does that include tampered data? Models that are 95% incorrect in their predictions? Reality trumps models by a significant margin.

          • Suzanne Dixon MPH RD

            Just by physics and chemistry, the irrefutable laws of nature, you load the atmosphere with CO2, you will get global warming. Or you can just believe this guy. He’s super credible:
            http://tinyurl.com/pjofv6u

          • wangweilin

            I did read the article. It’s one of my favorite websites. However, you miss the point. Tom Nichols is emphasizing our over-reliance on experts. Near the end of the article:

            “Indeed, in an ideal world, experts are the servants, not the masters, of a democracy.

            But when citizens forgo their basic obligation to learn enough to actually govern themselves, and instead remain stubbornly imprisoned by their fragile egos and caged by their own sense of entitlement, experts will end up running things by default. That’s a terrible outcome for everyone.”

            Citizens abandoning their obligation to be informed is the danger. Letting the ‘experts’ decide by default is even more dangerous.

          • Suzanne Dixon MPH RD

            He also points out that all things being equal, experts are more likely to be right than you.

            I think you misunderstand James Hansen. He is a firm advocate for fighting global warming.
            http://tinyurl.com/lgawouh

            As for temperature trends, where to you get your data?
            http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/

          • wangweilin

            Yes, Hansen is a firm advocate of global warming and mistaken on almost every prediction he has made. So much for the experts. Pachuri of IPCC just resigned and said global warming was his religion. So much for science expert. As far as experts being correct, I would hope so, but the danger is the abandonment of reason just because someone is an expert. Experts gave us the last financial crash and will give us another. Experts got us into Middle East wars. Expert doctors have been known to make mistakes. So rolling over like a dog when someone says “I’m an expert.” is foolish. Always keep your mind and reason intact. Unadjusted data shows flat to cooling trend. RSS, USHCN, UAH data. Without Google do you know what these are?
            You didn’t answer the questions. Should tampered data be included? Should unadjusted data be included?

          • Suzanne Dixon MPH RD

            What are your qualifications? Climatologist? The temperature trend is not flat and cooling, and the data are not “tampered.” Do you have a degree in statistics? If you did, you wouldn’t use the term tampered. I don’t roll over for experts, I just believe physicists and climatologists are more qualified to assess the impact of rampant, unchecked, carbon-base fuel use on the climate of earth than the deniers who have been debunked and discredited at every turn.

          • wangweilin

            Over 90% of the models have been incorrect. If a doctor is wrong 90% of the time I would get a new doctor. Likewise it’s time for a new approach to climate science.

          • Suzanne Dixon MPH RD

            There’s a difference between incorrect and imperfect because the system is incredibly complex and needs to be adjusted over time as computing power improves and more and more variables can be factored in. Last I checked, credible climate scientists were saying we have grossly underestimated the future costs of current energy pattern use.
            http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140408111534.htm

            I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on this.

          • wangweilin

            Yes we will have to disagree. You have not answered any question directly that I have asked so this not a serious discussion on your part.

          • Suzanne Dixon MPH RD

            What question? If providing objective data isn’t answering a question, I don’t know what is. Because I’m not a climate scientist I don’t simply spout nonsense about climate models I’m not qualified to assess.

          • wangweilin

            Anyone can be informed in today’s world. The sentences ending with “?” are questions. Should tampered data be included? Most models do not agree with real world observations-should they be included? You asked where I get my data and I told you. I asked if you knew what these sources were. You didn’t answer. You have abandoned reason to the experts, some who have shown to be wrong. Experts such as Michael Mann and Phil Jones. Do you know who they are?

          • Suzanne Dixon MPH RD

            Yes I know who they are. Outliers within the scientific community in terms of the level of concern about climate change. Do you know what an outlier is? Nice of you to be snarky from behind your anonymous posts. You didn’t answer my questions either. What are your qualifications? You might note that Michael Mann is a professor of meteorology. Meteorology deals with weather. Climatology with climate. He’s not qualified. Sorry.

          • wangweilin

            If you knew who Wang Wei Lin is you would appreciate the nom de guerre. Real name Tim Gilley, BS-Engineering with math minor.

          • Suzanne Dixon MPH RD

            I’ll see your BS engineering and raise it. Me? BS engineering, MPH, epidemiology and statistics, MS Nutrition Science. You win. You’ve worn me down with your stupidity. I’m done.

          • wangweilin

            Yes your education exceeds mine. The stupid unwashed masses bow to the expert. Thanks for the reveal.

          • Suzanne Dixon MPH RD

            I believe this is the problem. No ability to have a serious discussion without utter snarkiness and disdain. I didn’t say I was an expert on climate change. I simply trust the 99.9% of climatologists who do believe global temperatures are increasing, and that atmospheric CO2 levels are high and going up (http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/). And I suppose I’ll have to let you have the last word, so knock yourself out.

          • Suzanne Dixon MPH RD

            Yes, data that is properly adjusted, statistically – what you call “tampered” – should be published. No, data that is unadjusted should not be published, because unqualified people misinterpret it.

          • wangweilin

            Unadjusted data is the raw empirical observation. And a simple temperature data point is about as raw as it gets. I get it, don’t trust the raw data.

          • Suzanne Dixon MPH RD

            Apparently you didn’t look at the information I referenced either. And still, are you a climatologist?

          • wangweilin

            CO2 concentrations have risen in the last 20 years. The temperatures have not followed accordingly. That in science is called an empirical observation and is the most valid data. Geologic time shows temperature rising before CO2. So the ‘causal’ connection is inverted by today’s experts. They have it backwards.

            Expert James Hansen of NASA said that Manhattan would be underwater by now. Yep, trust the experts.

  • Come on think!

    A few thousand years ago there was no northern ocean at all. There was a humungous ice cap! Miles high. Now we have species living in the warming ocean. There will be other species living in the warmer ocean.
    The only constant is change.

  • Come on think!

    Climate change is happening, it is a given.
    Why it is happening is not so clear.
    This is also the lowest CO2 concentration ever!
    http://www.biocab.org/Carbon_Dioxide_Geological_Timescale.html

    • jerry

      Read Dark Winter by John L. Casey.

  • wangweilin

    This is for all you tree hugging IPCC sycophants to consider.

    How is solar good for the environment? It requires extensive mining for rare earth elements, usually in China damaging the environment, covers 1000’s of acres of land which damages the environment, concentrators kill 1000’s of protected birds(read report on Ivanpah in California), requires traditional sources as backup because of its
    unreliability and inefficiencies. Extensive construction requirements, extensive land use issues. Expensive subsidies even when no
    power is generated. Most of the GSE receiving grants for solar were heavy democrat donors and have gone bankrupt laughing all the way to the bank. Solyndra is the most well known of these. Plus solar receives more ‘subsidies’ than traditional carbon power and generates electricity that costs 5-10 times as much.

    How is wind good for the environment? It also requires extensive mining for rare earth elements. The turbines kill hundreds of thousands of birds and bats per year. The ultra-low sonics cause health problems. They are so ugly even liberal New Englanders
    didn’t want them near Cape Cod. Turbines are also inefficient requiring traditional backup. They don’t run in high wind and they don’t run in low wind. Property values are damaged in the vicinity of wind farms. Wind farms also require extensive construction of the farm and infrastructure. In terms of economics most of the suppliers are paid whether they generate electricity or not since they are on the subsidy teat.

    So tree huggers I hope you feel good about the birds and bats being killed, the damage done to the environment just to make ‘green’ power and the corruption and wasted taxes. Also if you really believe carbon energy is bad please turn off traditional power sources. Quit taking your first world vacations in jets and buying high tech toys while telling other people how to live.

    No complaining while you shiver in the cold.

    Liberalism is a mental disorder.

    • Mike Richardson

      You’re right, the Alberta tar sands are really great for the environment. And BP, man they really improved the Gulf of Mexico. Mountaintop removal to get at coal — ah hell, we’ve got too many mountains anyway, and too many clean streams. Why on earth would we want to try anything different? There’s an environmental trade-off with any method of energy production, but you’d truly have to have a mental disorder to think that the current reliance on fossil fuels is the best method we’ve got. You might have better luck making this argument on the Fox News website, since most of the folks who actually read Discover are probably a little too well informed to fall for the fossil fuel propaganda.

      • wangweilin

        So you don’t rely on any fossil fuels? By the way I don’t visit foxnews on the web or television. Assume much?

        • Mike Richardson

          Yeah, that’s always a great comeback, since we’ve got any real choice at this point. But the point is we should push for those choices, and a better future.

          • wangweilin

            By push you mean force. Force is not a choice. Yep, that always works, just force people to adapt something they don’t want. Works for school lunches. Obama would be proud of you.

          • Mike Richardson

            No, by push I mean vote, both at the ballot box and with dollars, but supporting businesses that invest in cleaner energy. What is it about the right wing mind that keeps going to these memes of drinking poisoned Koolaid, or that any thought of changing things heralds the sound of goose-stepping fascism? Is it maybe projection, or what? I just can’t understand that kind of paranoia. Now please excuse me while I get back to putting listening devices in your cheese, before the boss fires me. Thanks a lot, Obama!

          • wangweilin

            In polls most Americans rate climate change low on the list of concerns. So there will be no vote. So force of bureaucracy is the only way to go green just like school lunches. Is there anything Obama says or does you disagree with? By the way Bush was a horrible president.

          • Mike Richardson

            So you think Bush was a bad president. Well, at least we can agree on one thing. I’m guessing your sudden turn against climate change in general means you really weren’t all that concerned about the birds, anyway? And I was thinking it was all about the birds. Who, by the way, die in numbers ranging from 1-3.7 billion a year as a result of household cats, who also kill countless cute rodents and the occasional smurf. So do you own a cat? Live in a highrise? — they kill birds, too, ya know. And if we have to pay for our ornithocide in the afterlife, I’m sure I’m doomed to finger lickin’ hell for that visit to KFC last week. Let’s not even get started on Thanksgiving. Which reminds me, what have you got against school lunches? And I disagree with Obama on quite a few things. Especially the listening devices in cheese.

          • wangweilin

            Thanks for the cheese comment. Great reveal.

      • wangweilin

        I didn’t pose questions about tar sands and mountaintops. You didn’t answer the questions on solar and wind. I guess you’re ok with dead birds, bats, mining damage and corruption.

        • Mike Richardson

          The tar sands projects and mountaintop removal operations certainly kill wildlife, so they’re relevant to the discussion. As for the windmills and solar, PopSci has a nice article on their website comparing bird deaths from the different methods of energy production. Coal’s actually the worst.

          • wangweilin

            I found the PopSci article. Huffington Post also had the same chart and said not to trust the numbers because of questionable methodology. Indiana University did a study and bird death by turbines was found to be in the 100s of millions. Keep drinking the Kool-Aid.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

ImaGeo

ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar
+