“Fingerprints” of Climate Change

pp 43-55

Climate change and ice breeding pinnipeds

  • Brendan P. KellyAffiliated withUniversity of Alaska Fairbanks, Juneau Center, School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences

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Pinniped diversity is greatest in seasonally ice-covered seas where the risk of predation is minimised. In recent decades, the thickness and extent of seasonal ice cover has decreased in the Arctic, and climate models predict that positive feedback from melting ice covers will result in rapid warming in the polar regions. Correlational studies linking arctic marine mammals to climate change are limited by inadequate time series of population counts. Increased understanding of the ecology of individual species is needed as the bases for testable hypotheses. Potential effects of arctic warming on marine mammals have been discussed in terms of decreased areal extent of the ice, but the most immediate effects may result from more subtle changes in the distribution of ice and snow that affect the ecology of individual species.

Ringed seals and wafruses are strongly associated with seasonal sea ice and illustrate ecological differences that influence their vulnerability to warming in the Arctic. Earlier snowmelts may prematurely destroy subnivean lairs subjecting ringed seal pups to adverse weather and increased predation. Decreases in the summer extent of arctic sea ice may decrease the Pacific wafruses’ access to food and increase their exposure to polar bear predation.