When a water fountain splashes from the waves off the coast of Greenland, the whale blows the rotten air upwards. Huge and often ancient whales, crabs with their distinctive fangs, and beluga whales with their strikingly light skin, are perfectly adapted to life in the icy waters of the far north – and thus, like polar bears on sea ice, face major problems due to the fact that climate change is causing to the warming of the Arctic region.
By 2100, this species could be native a few hundred kilometers further north than it is today, according to an estimate by Filipino Chambolt of the Greenland State Environmental Research Institute in Nuuk and the University of California at Santa Cruz and her team. According to their study, recently published in Science Advances, Arctic whale habitats are likely to shrink 25 percent in summer.
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Even if these estimates are still approximate and therefore relatively uncertain, they show a clear trend: populations of whales in the far north are under severe pressure. This calculation was based on data sets of 29 beluga whales, 71 bowhead whales, and 129 rhino whales that swam through the waters around Greenland fitted with a small device between 1993 and 2020.
The miniature devices revealed the whereabouts of the animal in question and thus also its migration routes. Chambolt of the Philippines compared this motion data to the values reported by climate models for the state of marine areas in the far north in the year 2100.
In summer, whales are likely to migrate about 240 kilometers north
Where, then, might whales find similar surface water temperatures, salinity, and other characteristics they have become accustomed to over the past three decades? So what is the size of their habitat after climate change has altered conditions in the polar regions? In summer, the three whale species should swim about 243 kilometers norther than they are today. And even in winter, the habitat will be closer to the pole by about 121 kilometers. However, not only does climate change have different effects in individual regions, different whale species also react differently to these effects. Beluga whales, also called beluga, live mainly along the coasts in the north and south of the huge Canadian island of Baffin, which is located off the North American mainland and Hudson Bay.
If humanity can limit Earth’s temperature rise to less than two degrees, the beluga habitat will still migrate north dramatically by 2100 and the animals will lose nearly three-quarters of their habitat by 71 percent in summer. On the other hand, if humanity continues to use huge amounts of coal, oil and natural gas, the study calculates a loss of 88 percent of summer white water.
As tragic as these numbers may seem, the reality could be worse. Thus, the beluga lives in numerous groups, each of them mostly swims in the summer exactly in the area where she has already spent August-September in previous years. But what happens when the animals in this traditional homeland get too warm and may not find enough to eat? Will they persevere there to the end? Or maybe some animals will dare to move to a new habitat with better conditions? How many beluga whales will follow these pioneers? Whaling may provide an indication of the behavior of beluga whales in the face of climate change: the species has been practically wiped out from Spitsbergen and has not returned to this day.
By 2100, 28 percent of summer areas could disappear
Filipino Chambolt and her team also identifies significant losses of bow whales, which live near the coast of Baffin Island, on the coast of northeastern Greenland, north of Svalbard and across Franz Josef Land at the ice pack boundary: by 2100 28 percent of their summer areas could disappear if a target was met Two-tier climate. If not, losses could be as high as 68 percent.
The study also shows a loss of the same magnitude for the rhinoceros, of 31 percent when the two-degree target is reached and 66 percent when the mark is exceeded. At least for groups living on the coasts north of Buff Island. For the species themselves, climate change on the east coast of Greenland could lead to a significant improvement. If the two-degree goal is met, the animals can find 85% more living space, and if this mark is broken, it will be 105%.
However, Filipina Chambolt and her team noted that this species is particularly sensitive to climate change. After all, sea rhinos mostly live near sea ice, which is expected to largely disappear from the Arctic Ocean by 2060, at least in the summer. Moreover, like beluga whales, marauders usually remain faithful to their location. Therefore, no one knows whether the unicorns among the whales really dared to jump into the Arctic Ocean. After all, the water is deep there, which is suitable for rumen fish, which usually hunt their prey at a depth of more than 300 meters under the waves.
Study weak point: the habitat of the deep sea
In this context, Filipina Chambolt and her team point to a weakness in their study, in which they mainly consider the surface temperature of the water. However, rhinos usually hunt in the depths – and spend an important part of their lives there. However, the researchers hardly took the conditions in depth into account because not much is known about them. Researchers also know very little about the depth of the dive and thus the hunting grounds for bowhead whales and belugas. So these species could face more problems in the future than computer simulations suggest.
In addition to climate change, other problems are likely to worsen the situation for Arctic whales in the future. If the ice melts, more mineral resources will be sought in the Far North. This means that more ships will pass through this area, which will increase pollution and, above all, generate more noise. However, this can disable the whale’s sensitive hearing organs, which they often rely on privately. The future of bowhead whales and narcissus, as well as beluga whales, can look much bleaker.
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