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Ringed seals feel the heat

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From April 11 to 21, 2014, join a Norwegian Polar Institute and WWF-Canon scientific expedition to collect critical data about Europe’s most westerly polar bear population. The population on and around the Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard is facing a future without summer sea ice. See all posts from the expedition here.

Head of ringed seal above the water. Blomsterhalvøya, Spitsbergen (Svalbard) arctic archipelago, Norway. © WWF-Canon / Sindre KinnerødHead of ringed seal above the water. Blomsterhalvøya, Spitsbergen (Svalbard) arctic archipelago, Norway.
© WWF-Canon / Sindre Kinnerød

April 16, 2014
For the first time this trip, I was wide awake late in the evening. The ship was sailing back above 80 degrees north latitude and heading into the fringe of this winters pack ice- things could get interesting. Large ice bergs calved from glaciers on the north side of Nordaustlandet Island in previous years stood out on the horizon and the ships radar, surrounded by young sea ice only frozen in the last few weeks. Ice formation was quite late in the Barents Sea this winter and remained well below average in final extent. All of the areas we’d been sailing through should have been solid ice and were just a few years back. This year, Svalbard was ice free on all sides until the very end of the winter.

The low angle ‘evening’ light is absolutely perfect to illuminate the contrasting dark open water and floes of drift and young consolidated ice dotted occasionally with deep blue blocks of ancient glacial ice. While the sun never truly sets, it does dip down just to the horizon, teasing us with a nightfall that will not return here for many months. The Lance glides into this surreal sea and ice scape with little effort- this young ice, while starting to look more like solid first year ice, is still relatively soft and thin. Good enough for seals and walrus to haul out on and for polar bears to walk on, but not good breeding habitat for ringed seals as the ice formed too late, is very flat (no relief or pressure ridges to collect snow), and there is only a skim of light snow.

While we often hear about the plight of the polar bear in popular news and media, we rarely hear about the effects a rapidly warming Arctic is having on their primary prey, the ringed seal. Due to both the rapidly changing conditions and to long term research and monitoring of seals in the area by NPI, Svalbard may be the best place in the world to begin understanding the potential impacts of climate change for this important species. Along with being the primary food for polar bears across the Arctic, it is also one of the top three foods consumed by coastal dwelling Arctic peoples and is a nutritional powerhouse without easy replacement.

Over breakfast discussions with our colleagues at NPI we learn that research here on ringed seals is starting to show disturbing trends. Lack of sea ice in many places coupled with conditions like those surrounding us here (thin flat ice with inadequate snow) are leading to reproductive failure of ringed seals in some years and locations. Newborn pups rely on well-placed lairs (snow caves on top of the ice, adjacent to pressure ridges or ice blocks, and with a breathing hole for access to the sea) to protect them from hungry predators like polar bears, Arctic Fox, and even gulls. Without that protection, they are easy prey. While that is good news for some bears in the short term, it will lead to long term difficulties as ringed seal populations ultimately decline in abundance and potentially shift in distribution. I also wonder about potential changes in what is called synchrony- polar bears have evolved to take advantage of ringed seal pupping during a specific time window each spring. Den emergence and seasonal migrations are tied to this window of food abundance. What will happen if that window closes or shifts significantly in time?

The capture team will start the day looking at the Seven Islands in the Nordenskioldbukta before turning their efforts to the main island. We’ll continue to push East with the Lance- as far as the sea ice will allow us to go in this vessel. The weather forecast is showing high winds, snow, and poor visibility for all of Svalbard tomorrow, so the helicopter crew is anxious to make the most of the time they have today. We spy a few more ivory gulls (when I say we, I mean our resident expert from Sweden Tom Arnbom- a serious birder!) as we push further into the ice, the odd bearded seal, and solitary walrus are becoming more common. We’ve still seen very few ringed seals, but hope that will change as we progress today.

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