The New Normal

CHICAGO —The “new normal” means that climate change has irreversibly changed the Arctic.

It means new predator-prey relationships, increased competition, crowded habitats and quickly transmitted diseases finding their niche in this still-evolving ecosystem.

Scientists presenting at the 2014 AAAS conference in Chicago recounted enormous changes in the system, including massive under-ice algae blooms and loss of ice. With record ice loss in 2007 and 2012, scientists have seen a reduction of ice up to 50 percent by area and 75 percent by volume, Sue Moore with NOAA  reported.

Kathy Burek Huntington, an Alaskan veterinarian specializing in pathology, described marine mammals as “the canary in the coal mine.”

“The arctic and its inhabitants are at the forefront of what’s going on with climate change,” she said.

To many people, the Arctic is distant and unreachable. The U.S. Census Bureau data reported Alaska’s population at just over 730,000 in 2012. However, the unique animals that make the Arctic their home – polar bears, whales, seals and walruses – can serve as the bridge to connect people to this remote place, the scientists said.

Take, for instance, the ringed seals, which are able to maneuver themselves on chunks of ice floating in the Arctic Ocean using thick, heavy claws evolved to function as little ice picks.  Ringed seals are just one type of pinniped, or flipper-footed animal, that relies heavily on ice for survival. These animals are known as ice obligate species. Ringed seals stay warm not only with their blubber, but by burrowing under snow and ice. With blankets of snow and a supermarket below their floating ice-nests, life was good for the ringed seal.

Polar Bear on edge of ice platform

Polar Bear standing on the edge of an ice platform.
Photo courtesy of NOAA.

Then there are the polar bears. When hunting, polar bears swim between ice platforms. As their icy rest stops disappear, the number of polar bear drownings is expected to continue rising. They are simply not capable of swimming such long distances with increasingly limited access to food sources.

Narwhals, a large-toothed whale endemic to the region, live in the Arctic year round… Feeding in the winter and raising calves in spring, they use offshore ice as the cover for their habitat. The narwhal’s specialized way of hunting and restricted habitat makes them one of the most vulnerable of arctic species.

As the rules for the Arctic ecosystem change, walruses, polar bears and narwhals look to be the biggest losers, said Andrew Trites, a researcher at the North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium. The biggest winners stand to be those who can expand their territory as the disappearing ice opens passages to areas previously unexplored. For migratory animals, these changes could mean opportunity, Trites said.

Certain whale species, like the bowhead whale and the killer whale, look to be in a good shape. In recent years, scientists have seen killer whales migrating to areas where they’ve never been seen before, seemingly to take advantage of the ice-free highways to dense populations of pinnipeds.  They are becoming the top predators of the “new normal.”

Two orcas swim with boat in distance.

Two orcas swim with boat in distance.
Photo courtesy of NOAA.

As climate change continues to “disrupt the fragile Arctic status quo,” researchers expect to see dramatic shifts in the health of these marine mammals and ultimately the people who depend on them.  This quick shift of oceanographic change highlights the complexity of ecosystems and acts as a warning for the impacts of climate change on other complex environments.

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