Narwhals Help Study Climate Change: Deep Diving Whales Transmit Temperature from Baffin Bay

Narwhals Help Study Climate Change: Deep Diving Whales Transmit Temperature from Baffin Bay

Deep sea temperatures in Baffin Bay are being measured by narwhals (Monodon monoceros) in an effort to learn more about the effects of climate change on Arctic waters. And the whales themselves are being studied as the satellite transmitters track their movements. Because narwhals remain in the high Arctic year round, they have been able to provide the first winter sea temperatures for the region. Diving to nearly a mile deep in an area that is of concern for scientists studying global warming, the data they provide will aid in understanding the severity of ocean temperature increases in critical Arctic habitat. Knowledge of narwhal natural history will help protect the species as well.

The narwhal is seen as a semi-mythological creature linked to unicorn fables because of their tusks. But hard data on these whales is actually very scarce. Their habitat is difficult to work in for most of the year and the whales are very wary of humans, having been hunted by Inuits for centuries. Populations of narwhal are estimated at somewhere between 10,000 and 45,000, but the IUCN lists this species as Data Deficient. Much like some of the dolphins, there is just not enough known about them to make a clear determination of their status. This study from the University of Washington will shed light on both the narwhal and its critical habitat in the waters between Greenland and Canada.

The currents that pass through Baffin Bay bring warmer waters north, tempering the severity of weather in northern Europe. Tracking changes here will provide better predictors of what is really happening to those currents. What is known is that the sea ice in the area was expanding until recently. Now it is shrinking very quickly. It is unclear whether this is linked to long term climate change.

If the Gulf Stream slows, as some predict, this will be the first place where effects are seen. Using the satellite data that the narwhals transmit, researchers target areas that the whales frequent to obtain further details, such as the salinity of the water in a particular part of the bay, which cannot be determined from the satellite transmitters. The combination of 400 readings a day from the whales’ transmitters and one time snapshots from visits to the area give a much broader picture of what is actually happening.

With many factors affecting climate, some man-made and some natural, it will be important to track the changes and moderate those which are within human control.

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