ARCTIC MARINE MAMMALS AND CLIMATE CHANGE: IMPACTS AND RESILIENCE

Authors


  • Corresponding Editor: P. K. Dayton.

Abstract

Evolutionary selection has refined the life histories of seven species (three cetacean [narwhal, beluga, and bowhead whales], three pinniped [walrus, ringed, and bearded seals], and the polar bear) to spatial and temporal domains influenced by the seasonal extremes and variability of sea ice, temperature, and day length that define the Arctic. Recent changes in Arctic climate may challenge the adaptive capability of these species. Nine other species (five cetacean [fin, humpback, minke, gray, and killer whales] and four pinniped [harp, hooded, ribbon, and spotted seals]) seasonally occupy Arctic and subarctic habitats and may be poised to encroach into more northern latitudes and to remain there longer, thereby competing with extant Arctic species. A synthesis of the impacts of climate change on all these species hinges on sea ice, in its role as: (1) platform, (2) marine ecosystem foundation, and (3) barrier to non-ice-adapted marine mammals and human commercial activities. Therefore, impacts are categorized for: (1) ice-obligate species that rely on sea ice platforms, (2) ice-associated species that are adapted to sea ice-dominated ecosystems, and (3) seasonally migrant species for which sea ice can act as a barrier. An assessment of resilience is far more speculative, as any number of scenarios can be envisioned, most of them involving potential trophic cascades and anticipated human perturbations. Here we provide resilience scenarios for the three ice-related species categories relative to four regions defined by projections of sea ice reductions by 2050 and extant shelf oceanography. These resilience scenarios suggest that: (1) some populations of ice-obligate marine mammals will survive in two regions with sea ice refugia, while other stocks may adapt to ice-free coastal habitats, (2) ice-associated species may find suitable feeding opportunities within the two regions with sea ice refugia and, if capable of shifting among available prey, may benefit from extended foraging periods in formerly ice-covered seas, but (3) they may face increasing competition from seasonally migrant species, which will likely infiltrate Arctic habitats. The means to track and assess Arctic ecosystem change using sentinel marine mammal species are suggested to offer a framework for scientific investigation and responsible resource management.

Ancillary