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Arctic Ship Traffic Threatens Narwhals and Other Extraordinary Animals

Animals
A pod of narwhals (Monodon monoceros) in central Baffin Bay. Narwhals are the most vulnerable animals to increased ship traffic in the Arctic Ocean. Kristin Laidre / University of Washington, CC BY-ND

By Donna Hauser, Harry Stern and Kristin Laidre

Americans often associate fall with football and raking leaves, but in the Arctic this season is about ice. Every year, floating sea ice in the Arctic thins and melts in spring and summer, then thickens and expands in fall and winter.

As climate change warms the Arctic, its sea ice cover is declining. This year scientists estimate that the Arctic sea ice minimum in late September covered 1.77 million square miles, tying the sixth lowest summertime minimum on record.


With less sea ice, there is burgeoning interest in shipping and other commercial activity throughout the Northwest Passage—the fabled route that links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, via Canada's convoluted Arctic archipelago—as well as the Northern Sea Route, which cuts across Russia's northern seas. This trend has serious potential impacts for Arctic sea life.

In a recent study, we assessed the vulnerability of 80 populations of Arctic marine mammals during the "open-water" period of September, when sea ice is at its minimum extent. We wanted to understand the relative risks of vessel traffic across Arctic marine mammal species, populations and regions. We found that more than half (53 percent) of these populations—including walruses and several types of whales—would be exposed to vessels in Arctic sea routes. This could lead to collisions, noise disturbance or changes in the animals' behavior.

Map of the Arctic region showing the the Northern Sea Route and Northwest PassageArctic Council / Susie Harder

Less Ice, More Ships

More than a century ago, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first European to navigate the entire Northwest Passage. Due to the short Arctic summer, it took Amundsen's 70-foot wooden sailing ship three years to make the journey, wintering in protected harbors.

Fast-forward to summer 2016, when a cruise ship carrying more than 1,000 passengers negotiated the Northwest Passage in 32 days. The summer "open-water" period in the Arctic has now increased by more than two months in some regions. Summer sea ice cover has shrunk by over 30 percent since satellites started regular monitoring in 1979.

Bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) in Disko Bay, West Greenland Kristin Laidre, CC BY 2.0

Arctic seas are home to a specialized group of marine mammals found nowhere else on Earth, including beluga and bowhead whales, narwhals, walruses, ringed and bearded seals and polar bears. These species are critical members of Arctic marine ecosystems, and provide traditional resources to Indigenous communities across the Arctic.

According to ecologists, all of these animals are susceptible to sea ice loss. Research at lower latitudes has also shown that marine mammals can be affected by noise from vessels because of their reliance on sound, as well as by ship strikes. These findings raise concerns about increasing vessel traffic in the Arctic.

Sensitivity Times Exposure Equals Vulnerability

To determine which species could be at risk, we estimated two key factors: Exposure—how much a population's distribution overlaps with the Northwest Passage or Northern Sea Route during September—and sensitivity, a combination of biological, ecological and vessel factors that may put a population at a higher risk.

As an illustration, imagine calculating vulnerability to air pollution. People generally are more exposed to air pollution in cities than in rural areas. Some groups, such as children and the elderly, are also more sensitive because their lungs are not as strong as those of average adults.

Ringed seal (Pusa hispida) pup in Alaska NOAA

We found that many whale and walrus populations were both highly exposed and sensitive to vessels during the open-water period. Narwhals—medium-sized toothed whales with a large spiral tusk—scored as most vulnerable overall. These animals are endemic to the Arctic, and spend much of their time in winter and spring in areas with heavy concentrations of sea ice. In our study, they ranked as both highly exposed and highly sensitive to vessel effects in September.

Narwhals have a relatively restricted range. Each summer they migrate to the same areas in the Canadian high Arctic and around Greenland. In fall they migrate south in pods to offshore areas in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait, where they spend the winter making deep dives under the dense ice to feed on Greenland halibut. Many narwhal populations' core summer and fall habitat is right in the middle of the Northwest Passage.

A pod of narwhals (Monodon monoceros) in central Baffin Bay. Narwhals are the most vulnerable animals to increased ship traffic in the Arctic during September. NOAA / OAR / OER / Kristin Laidre

Vulnerable Arctic Regions, Species and Key Uncertainties

The western end of the Northwest Passage and the eastern end of the Northern Sea Route converge at the Bering Strait, a 50-mile-wide waterway separating Russia and Alaska. This area is also a key migratory corridor for thousands of beluga and bowhead whales, Pacific walruses and ringed and bearded seals. In this geographic bottleneck and other narrow channels, marine mammals are particularly vulnerable to vessel traffic.

Among the species we assessed, polar bears were least vulnerable to September vessel traffic because they generally spend the ice-free season on land. Of course, longer ice-free seasons are also bad for polar bears, which need sea ice as a platform for hunting seals. They may also be vulnerable to oil spills year-round.

Research in the harsh and remote Arctic seas is notoriously difficult, and there are many gaps in our knowledge. Certain areas, such as the Russian Arctic, are less studied. Data are sparse on many marine mammals, especially ringed and bearded seals. These factors increased the uncertainty in our vessel vulnerability scores.

We concentrated on late summer, when vessel traffic is expected to be greatest due to reduced ice cover. However, ice-strengthened vessels can also operate during spring, with potential impacts on seals and polar bears that are less vulnerable in September. The window of opportunity for navigation is growing as sea ice break-up happens earlier in the year and freeze-up occurs later. These changes also shift the times and places where marine mammals could be exposed to vessels.

Arctic Sea Ice 1984 - 2016 (4K) youtu.be

Planning for a Navigable Arctic

Recent initiatives in the lower 48 states offer some models for anticipating and managing vessel-marine mammal interactions. One recent study showed that modeling could be used to predict blue whale locations off the California coast to help ships avoid key habitats. And since 2008, federal regulations have imposed seasonal and speed restrictions on ships in the North Atlantic to minimize threats to critically endangered right whales. These practical examples, along with our vulnerability ranking, could provide a foundation for similar steps to protect marine mammals in the Arctic.

The International Maritime Organization has already adopted a Polar Code, which was developed to promote safe ship travel in polar waters. It recommends identifying areas of ecological importance, but does not currently include direct strategies to designate important habitats or reduce vessel effects on marine mammals, although the organization has taken steps to protect marine habitat in the Bering Sea.

Even if nations take rigorous action to mitigate climate change, models predict that September Arctic sea ice will continue to decrease over the next 30 years. There is an opportunity now to plan for an increasingly accessible and rapidly changing Arctic, and to minimize risks to creatures that are found nowhere else on Earth.

Donna Hauser is a research assistant professor at the International Arctic Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Harry Stern is the principal mathematician at the Polar Science Center, University of Washington.

Kristin Laidre is an associate professor of aquatic and fishery sciences, University of Washington.

Disclosure statements: Donna Hauser receives funding from the North Pacific Research Board, Alaska Arctic Observatory & Knowledge Hub, Moore Foundation and Collaborative Alaska Arctic Studies Program. Harry Stern receives funding from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Kristin Laidre receives funding from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Defense, the Pew Foundation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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