[UW Today]: Arctic sea ice loss impacts beluga whale migration

from UW Today, January 5, 2017:

A beluga whale surfaces for air.

The annual migration of some beluga whales in Alaska is altered by sea ice changes in the Arctic, while other belugas do not appear to be affected.

A new study led by the University of Washington finds that as Arctic sea ice takes longer to freeze up each fall due to climate change, one population of belugas mirrors that timing and delays its migration south by up to one month. In contrast, a different beluga population, also in Alaska, that migrates and feeds in the same areas doesn’t appear to have changed its migration timing with changes in sea ice.

The paper was published Dec. 21 in the journal Global Change Biology.

“The biggest take-home message is that belugas can respond relatively quickly to their changing environment, yet we can’t expect a uniform response across all beluga populations,” said lead author Donna Hauser, a postdoctoral researcher at the UW’s Polar Science Center.

“If we’re trying to understand how these species are going to respond to climate change, we should expect to see variability in the response across populations and across time,” Hauser said. “That may complicate our predictions for the future.”

Two genetically distinct beluga populations spend winters in the Bering Sea, then swim north in the early summer as sea ice melts and open water allows them passage into the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. There they feast all summer on fish and invertebrates before traveling back south in the fall. Other research suggests the whales are taught by their mothers when to migrate and which route to take, so it was unclear if belugas would be responsive to sea ice changes.

[Read the full article at UW Today]

Related

Assistant Professor Kristin Laidre teaches the FISH 464: Arctic Marine Ecology course every two years (winter, odd years) through the School of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences. This course can be applied towards a minor in marine biology.