Stark warning from scientists that climate change already has severe impacts on marine mammals at Svalbard

At the meeting of the Marine Mammal Scientific Advisory Board on 25th October, Kit Kovacs from the Norwegian Polar Institute presented the situation for marine mammals at Svalbard that depend on the sea ice for completing their life cycle.

--

A ringed seal on the ice. Photo: Geir Wing Gabrielsen / Norwegian Polar Institute

..

Kit M. Kovacs, senior research scientist Norwegian Polar Institute, and Arne Bjørge, Chair of the Marine Mammal Scientific Advisory Board. Photo: André Moan / Havforskningsinstituttet

By: Kit M. Kovacs, senior research scientist Norwegian Polar Institute, and Arne Bjørge, Chair of the Marine Mammal Scientific Advisory Board

The temperatures in the Arctic are increasing at twice the global average rate. Sea ice in the Barents region disappear two to four times faster than the Arctic average.

The ringed seal makes lairs in the snow that accumulates around cracked ice or pieces of glaciers that are frozen into the fjord ice. In these lairs they give birth to and suckle their pups. Without the lairs, the pups are exposed to the harsh Arctic weather and to carnivores.

In recent years, the ringed seals have had difficulties in finding sea ice of suitable quality for digging lairs. In June-July the ringed seals used to moult on the fjord ice. Researchers took advantage of the moulting seals to monitor the population size, because the seals could be easily counted when hauled out on the ice.

Now there is no fjord ice left at Svalbard during summer. The moult has to take place in water, which slows down the process, and the population cannot be monitored the usual way.

Climate change has already caused problems both for the ringed seals and for the scientists that are monitoring them. New methods to monitor the seals have to be developed and we are in a hurry before the climate change has had too severe of an impact on the seals.