Uncertain Migration for Marine Mammals

'Tis the season for gray whales to embark upon their annual 6,000 mile migration from the coast of Baja California to the Arctic. The species has been around for over a million years, making the north-south-north trek with the seasons and food supply. But scientists are starting to take a closer look at whale migration as an indicator of the state of the Arctic ecosystem, as atmospheric and ocean temperatures rise.

Arctic sea ice extent in the past three years has been lower than any other time in the past thirty years, when scientists started keeping track. Since life thrives on the sea ice edge, conditions change for larger marine animals when that ice edge recedes farther from the shore. Additionally, scientists are finding that the amount of marine life decreases as ice sheets shrink, a discovery that has grave implications for animals at all steps along the Arctic food chain. Whales, in particular, are having a tough time finding the fatty crustaceans they prefer and are resorting to larger amounts of krill and shrimp. It is not yet known exactly how shifts in the food chain due to warming will affect other Arctic animals, or the whales on a long term scale.

Scientists are feeling particularly pressed to speed their studies of Arctic biodiversity in the wake of President Obama's announcement that previously untouched coastal areas will be opened to oil drilling. The newly vulnerable areas will include coastlines off of northern Alaska, so scientists are scrambling to fill knowledge gaps about Arctic biodiversity before this begins.

Although Obama promised the drilling will just be a stepping stone to a greener economy, "part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies more on homegrown fuels and clean energy," even a small amount of drilling could reap horrific rewards on the fragile Arctic ecosystem.

Read about varying opinions of the Obama administration's announcement here.

Read Jonathan Hiskes' (Grist.org) take on "drill, baby, drill."