Please select your home edition
Edition
RS Sailing 728x90

From Penguins to Polar Bears

by Cherie Winner on 18 Aug 2014
Forced to swim longer distances in search of food, polar bears may not survive. They are supremely adapted to life in an icy sea and a rich diet of seal meat and do not do well if confined to land. Mary Carman, WHOI
The impacts of climate change in Polar Regions - As air and sea temperatures rise, the United States and other nations are experiencing more and bigger storms, droughts, and wildfires. But the effects of climate change may be greatest in Earth’s Polar Regions. In Antarctica and the Arctic, thinner ice is covering less area for a shorter time each year, and that ice loss threatens organisms whose lifestyles depend on it, ranging from algae at the bottom of the food chain to polar bears at the top.


Conservation efforts for polar species, however, are especially challenging. While managing a forest or a fishery might be done at a regional or national level, managing polar zones requires international solutions. Why? Because climate change involves the entire planet, and because Polar Regions cut across national boundaries, said Stephanie Jenouvrier, a biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) who studies penguins and other seabirds.


How then can scientists best help policymakers to develop effective conservation strategies for polar species? To explore these issues, Jenouvrier invited climate scientists and biologists, resource managers, policy experts, and artists to WHOI in May 2014. This was the ninth in a series of Elisabeth and Henry A. Morss Colloquia, which bring experts to WHOI to exchange and foster ideas on important issues that confront human society today.

On thinner ice
Many polar species are 'ice obligates,' which means they absolutely require sea ice in order to survive, said Scott Doney, director of the Ocean and Climate Change Institute at WHOI.

[Sorry, this content could not be displayed]


Polar bears, for instance, rest on large floes between their forays into the sea to capture seals. Without plentiful ice islands, they can’t stay close enough to their rich hunting grounds and may drown in the attempt to swim farther, or starve. Because they evolved for life on ice and at sea, they can’t shift to a terrestrial lifestyle. Restricted to land (where their grizzly, non sea going cousins thrive), they struggle to find enough to eat.


Less charismatic species, such as the algae that grow on the underside of sea ice, also suffer when the sea ice goes away—and that affects the entire ecosystem. Under-ice algae feed the krill that support much of the oceanic food chain, including fish, seals, whales, and penguins. With loss of sea ice, the annual bloom of algae shrinks, along with the prospects of all those other species—including the people who rely on polar ecosystems for their livelihood.

Doney added that loss of sea ice also means we will see more ship activity and oil and gas drilling in polar areas, increasing the potential for spills and other environmental impacts in those areas. Finally, he said, the higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, primarily from burning of fossil fuels, not only warm the air and water but also cause the ocean to become more acidic, an effect that is especially pronounced in Arctic waters.

The tools at hand
Efforts to protect polar species are under way—some brand-new, and some with help from laws that are decades old. Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity, pointed out that the United States has laws on the books that can be used to address many problems related to climate change, even though they were not enacted with climate change in mind.

The Clean Air Act was passed in 1970 and helped reduce smog in major cities and acid rain in the Northeast, but more recently it has been applied to climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions. The purpose of the Clean Water Act, passed in 1948, is to 'restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s water' (both fresh- and salt-). That includes acidification of coastal waters, which in many parts of the U.S. are already impaired according to Clean Water Act standards.

Then there’s the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which aims to protect imperiled species and the habitats they rely on. Ninety-three percent of the species listed as endangered under the ESA since 1973 have either stabilized or improved (although few have recovered to the point of being de-listed), said Wolf. 'It’s the world’s strongest wildlife protection law.'

Because saving a wild species requires maintaining its habitat, the ESA provides a route to protect areas, such as the Arctic, that are vulnerable to climate-related damage. But it is not a perfect tool, said Lynn Scarlett, managing director of public policy at The Nature Conservancy. While the ESA mandates that listing decisions be based solely on science (and not on economic, social, or political concerns), its language is frustratingly imprecise.

For a species to be listed as 'threatened,' for example, its danger of extinction throughout all or a significant part of its range must be 'reasonably likely to occur within the foreseeable future.'

' ‘Reasonably likely, foreseeable future’—what does that mean?' Jenouvrier asked. 'My work is to project into the future what will happen for penguins. What kind of time frame should I use? It was very helpful to see how the term has been interpreted in the past, so we can implement a scientific approach that matches the needs of policymakers.'

Local, national, global
Even at their best, U.S. laws are of limited use when it comes to polar protection because they only apply to species and habitats that occur within U.S. territory. Polar bears, the first species to be listed as endangered primarily because of climate-related habitat loss, were eligible for protection under the ESA only because some of them live in the U.S., specifically Alaska, and the legal protections don’t extend to those living elsewhere.

Antarctica presents a special case, because the region does not belong to any one nation or small number of nations, as much of the Arctic does. The activities of scientists, whalers, fishermen, and others who study or harvest its resources are governed—in a very loose sense—by multinational agreement. Participants in the Morss Colloquium heard from several speakers about the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), a treaty established among 24 states, including the U.S. and the European Union, to monitor changes in the Antarctic and manage its resources, particularly fisheries.

Protecting Antarctic species can begin with a strong statement from one member, such as the potential listing of Emperor penguins under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, as Jenouvrier and her colleagues recently called for. At the very least, Jenouvrier said, the U.S. could influence resource use in Antarctica by banning products harvested there, such as krill-derived dietary supplements. Reducing the market for such items could protect krill by making it not worth the expense to harvest them.

Coming together
Like nations, scientists also need to coordinate their efforts, among other reasons, because there are differences among polar 'neighborhoods.' Complex air-sea-ice interactions can lead to different climate impacts in different places, WHOI biologist Hal Caswell pointed out. In some parts of Antarctica, sea ice is actually increasing.

Such nuance poses a problem in the political realm, where differing results may be cited without context and portrayed as meaning that nobody really knows what’s happening. But rather than negating an overall conclusion, different circumstances at various study locations that can help illuminate and refine the broader conclusion, he said.


At the colloquium, scientists studying Adélie penguins in colonies all over Antarctica agreed on a common framework for their research that will make it easier to understand why some colonies are crashing and others are thriving. Eventually, said Jenouvrier, gathering comparable information about each colony and its environment will help scientists provide better information to policymakers.

'You really need to use the same tool everywhere to be able to assess the impact of climate change,' she said. 'If you use different research tools, how do you distinguish between the impact of the various methods and the true impact of climate?'

Jenouvrier is aiming to establish that approach as a model for research on other polar species that are vulnerable to
climate change. Despite the difficulties of doing long-term studies and influencing international policy, she is optimistic about our chances of conserving polar areas and species, in part because of public interest in programs like the colloquium.

'People seem to care,' she said. 'And if they care, it’s a way we can change things. I don’t know how long it will take to change, but we can at least develop the science that is good enough to be ready to influence policy.'
The colloquium was supported by a generous donation from Elisabeth and Henry Morss.


Art amid science
This year’s Morss colloquium was the first in the series to include an art exhibit. It ran for two weekends at the Community Center in Woods Hole and featured photographs by WHOI research associate Chris Linder and watercolor paintings (such as 'One Life,' above) by artist Aurélie Lebrun du Puytison.

'The aim of including an art exhibit was to try to sensitize the public about the impact of climate change,' said the colloquium’s organizer, WHOI biologist Stephanie Jenouvrier. 'Sometimes when you say we have already a temperature increase of two degrees, people say, ‘So what?’ They don’t really relate to a few degrees of temperature. If you say, ‘It could endanger penguins and polar bears—they could disappear—people say, ‘Oh, maybe two degrees has a huge effect.’ '

Jenouvrier had spoken with painter du Puytison many times about her work with seabirds in Terra Adélie, Antarctica, and her concern over the fate of polar species: The artist is her sister.

'I showed her a lot of pictures and talked about my science,' said Jenouvrier. 'Then she translated what would show in a graph about population decline as a feeling in watercolor.'

At a public panel discussion before the colloquium began, photographer Linder said that his aim during his expeditions to Polar Regions is to use his camera to tell the scientists’ stories in a way that will connect with, educate, and inspire the public. He appears to be succeeding.

'I’ve gotten great reactions, especially from kids as young as preschool,' he told the group.







BandG AUS Zeus3 660x82Dubarry AUS 2017 660x82 4Wildwind 2016 660x82

Related Articles

Debbie says the 8thP with Insurance is Patience (Pt.II)
We’re back to keep exploring the nature of TC Debbie and how she came to tell us about the eighth P of insurance We’re back to keep exploring the nature of TC Debbie and how she came to tell us about the eighth P of insurance. We looked at what it was like to come into a disaster zone and now we see the evidence of those that did the right thing, and how the area is already on the road to recovery.
Posted on 25 Apr
Ayr, Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays to meet Cyclone Debbie
Having intensified to a Cat4 TC now, Debbie is expected to hit during the course of Monday night and into Tuesday mornin Having intensified to a Cat3 TC now and Cat4 when it will make landfall, Debbie is expected to hit during the course of Monday night and into Tuesday morning (0400hrs). Thus far, there have been police enforced evacuations around Ayr, as it is expected that this will be the biggest event since the all-powerful TC5 Yasi hit back in 2011. There are also reports of residents refusing to leave
Posted on 26 Mar
When whales meet sails
CAMPER helmsman Roberto ‘Chuny’ Bermudez found himself nearly face to face with whale in middle of North Atlantic Ocean. Currently the database for marine mammal strikes is very sparse. We are requesting sailors and boaters help to submit information on current and past incidents, however long ago that may be. By giving a location, date, identification if possible, and any other relevant information you can help scientists better understand where marine mammals are at risk for strikes
Posted on 8 Jan
Vendée Globe – Uncertainty about weather condition in North Atlantic
Alex Thomson and Armel le Cléac'h are probably looking closely at the wind models for the North Atlantic. Alex Thomson and Armel le Cléac'h are probably looking closely at the wind models for the North Atlantic. It does not seem to be easy.
Posted on 4 Jan
Seventh and Eighth blogs from on board Perie Banou II
Jon's tales from his epic 10th solo circumnavigation continues. Jon's tales from his epic 10th solo circumnavigation continues. This time he talks about the fierce gales and waves he met rounding the Cape of Good Hope. As always, it's told in Jon's unique and inimitable style...
Posted on 28 Dec 2016
Vendée Globe – Light winds for Banque Populaire and Hugo Boss
The first one to get out of it will have a nice north-westerly flow on the edge of the high pressure system. Banque Populaire and Hugo Boss are sailing in a complex weather system in a light wind zone. The first one to get out of it will have a nice north-westerly flow on the edge of the high pressure system.
Posted on 15 Dec 2016
Great Barrier Reef managers and industry prepare for summer
Marine park managers, scientists and experts recently met for the annual pre-summer workshop Marine park managers, scientists and experts recently met for the annual pre-summer workshop to assess climate-related risks to the Great Barrier Reef over the coming months. Current predictions by the Bureau of Meteorology and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are for a summer of average sea temperatures across the Great Barrier Reef.
Posted on 7 Dec 2016
Fourth Blog from on board Perie Banou II
Oh no - not the coffee cup Oh no - not the coffee cup - Jon keeps us all entertained as he approaches Reunion Island. The B&G chartplotter tells me since leaving the pleasant mid Western Australian town of Carnarvon (by world standards, an isolated town), that I have sailed some 2559 NM and have 751nm to go to Le Port Reunion Island. French. Reunion is a Suburb (department) of Paris. Population 844,000.
Posted on 23 Nov 2016
Third Blog from onboard Perie Banou II
Wind over the last week has been quiet and mild - Trade Winds from South East and South South East. It is 0830am here. 1030 in Western Australia. Windy. Rather Windy. Wind over the last week has been quiet and mild - Trade Winds from South East and South South East. Barometer 1018 to 1020 whatever they are. Last night I tapped the barometer and it sorta went oops. 1015hPa. Blimey.
Posted on 18 Nov 2016
Second Blog from onboard Perie Banou II
This is day 13 since leaving the mid Western Australian town of Carnarvon. Remote region. Beautiful town. This is day 13 since leaving the mid Western Australian town of Carnarvon. Remote region. Beautiful town. Kept cooler by the strong south winds, which make the trees bend and grow to the north. Carnarvon is nice, especially the months of September, October, November, and December. The wind is strong. Often near gale strength, with squalls and blue skies.
Posted on 15 Nov 2016