Thursday, 10 September 2015

How Does Climate Impact Arctic Life?

The Narwhal, with its mysterious spiral tooth, is a muse for myth and science. 

Their numbers are limited: about 80,000 worldwide (WWF), one-fifth the human population of the arctic region. Between 1987 and 2004, the narwhal population has dropped about 6 percent per year. If we extrapolate that decline to now, the decline has reached over 80% since the mid-1980’s. (Heide-Jørgensen's study). As our climate drives down the road of exponential change, the affect on all life will exceed our imaginations. However, studies show that Narwhals are among the most vulnerable. Will these beasts become just a legend? 

The arctic of the past sat in balance. Inuit hunters coexisted with the living and non-living aspects of the environment. The world existed in dynamic homeostasis.  

Zoom out on the axis of time. Since the start of life on Earth, there have been 8 major drops in life, beginning with the oxygen die off, over 2 billion years ago, and continuing on until the dinosaur, or Cretaceous extinction, 65 million years ago. 

The history of extinctions shows us that there is a direct correlation between temperature and diversity of life. Both temperature and diversity change constantly, but the current rate of change is our cause for concern. 

Continuous positive feedback – whereby the affect of a process amplifies that process – gives rise to cascading change. Higher temperatures, for example, can change the heat reflection quality, or albedo, of the Earth. In the Arctic, rising atmospheric temperature melts ice, leaving behind bare rock and water that absorb greater quantities of heat from the sun.

Changing ice conditions have an impact on all arctic inhabitants. Warmer water benefits plankton, and less sea ice results in a soaring killer whale population, which needs open ocean. The killer whales are quickly overtaking polar bears as the north’s top predator. 

Narwhals live much of their lives underneath a thick layer of ice. However, as mammals, they must surface to breath. Recently, there have been reports of whales becoming trapped under the ice when fractures freeze over due to sudden shifts in the weather. Desperate, hundreds of whales will squeeze into closing chasms. Many suffocate or become easy prey for polar bears circled around the gap. 

The Inuit peoples call this phenomenon “sassat.” They have observed it for hundreds of years, but recent reports have shocking implications. The entrapments occurred at an unusual time of year, in an unusual location: the whale’s summer feeding grounds, as opposed to their winter territory. “The Narwhales were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [US]. Is this an affect of the changing sea ice conditions? 

Schools On Board 

In October, my head full of questions, I embark on a trip to our planet’s far north. Along with eight other high school students and two teachers from Canada, I will be immersed in experiential learning. Through Schools on Board a program run by the University of Manitoba and ArcticNet, we will travel to Resolute, Nunavut, where we will board the Coast Guard vessel The CCGS Amundsen. Along with leading Arctic scientists, we will head east, through Lancaster Sound, conducting oceanographic sampling operations, then north, between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. The trip will conclude with a community visit in Pond Inlet, Nunavut. 

While experiencing the Arctic in all of its elements, we will learn through lectures, workshops and laboratory experiments. There will be an emphasis on social and environmental issues so that the understanding we gain will be both a microscopic and a broad view of the ecosystem. 

Schools on Board is an opportunity for learning as a whole. If an ecosystem is a collection of relationships, being in the midst of those interactions and experiencing them with all of our senses is crucial. I hope to come away with a deep connection to Arctic life, and an understanding of human impact upon it.

When each participant flies back to his or her home community, they will continue to spread their experience of the North. I plan on bringing back what I have learnt to both of my communities. In Campbell River, I will share photos, videos, and stories through the Carihi Earth Club and the science department. I am in the process of arranging visits to museums, elementary schools, and community centers in Campbell River and on Cortes Island. I will also keep this blog while I am away.

As part of my efforts to fund the trip, I am launching an Indiegogo campaign. Armed with watercolours and pens, I will send contributors postcards with a small piece of something I have learnt or observed during the trip. I hope that this is another way of spreading inspiration as far as the post can reach. 

Although the “unicorns of the sea” are diminishing, our understanding of them is growing. Recent research shows that the male Narwhal’s tusk holds up to 10 million nerve endings. As a receptor to the outside world, these sensitive teeth detect shifts in temperature, salinity, and pressure. Could this ocean antenna allow the narwhals to adapt to their changing environment?

The Narwhal’s tusk demonstrates the knowledge that is imbedded in our north. It is the responsibility of my generation to seek understanding of our planet and use it for the wellbeing of all life on Earth. Schools on Board provides the medium to learn. 

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