Scientific Reports, 20 May 2022
The combination of rapid sea ice loss with increased human activity – including commercial shipping and oil and gas development – threaten bowhead whale populations in the Arctic. Bowhead whales are one of the few species that live their entire life in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, living in close association with sea ice. They use specialized songs and calls to communicate with each other and determine the location of sea ice during navigation and migration. During the winter, sea ice cover reduces the ambient noise generated by human activities and provides a safe harbor for bowhead whales to search for food without worrying about larger predators, such as killer whales that currently cannot survive in Arctic waters. As air and ocean temperatures rise, the sea ice cover thins and melts, resulting in longer open-water seasons free from sea ice during the summer. When the seasonal sea ice cover retreats, bowhead whales migrate into southern Arctic and subarctic waters for increased food availability. The complete loss of sea ice may force bowhead whales to more permanently relocate their foraging grounds to sub-Arctic waters, exposing them to year-round ship traffic and commercial fishing activities as well as more marine predators.