Featured Image Credit: Ansgar Walk via Wikipedia
By Emily Persico
Killer whales are riding the wake of climate change into the coldest parts of the Arctic Ocean earlier than ever before. Afraid and confused, narwhal are changing their behaviors to avoid predation.
“I think the narwhal are scared to death,” expressed Steve Ferguson, co-author of the study analyzing their interactions. “Watching your brother or sister or mother get killed and eaten by a killer whale would cause a little post-traumatic stress in most of us.”
If narwhals cannot see killer whale attacks, they can almost certainly hear them. Killer whales, while rather quiet during the hunt, are known to be uproariously loud once the fight is over.
“[Once] they make a kill, they tend to celebrate and make a lot of noise,” says Ferguson. “And quite likely, in the chase, the narwhal are able to communicate and somehow this gets passed on down through the different groups.”
As it turns out, just a vague whiff of a killer whale can have narwhal cowering under ice, too scared to leave its sheltering borders to search for food in their richest feeding grounds.
Before we get feisty and start blaming killer whales for all this Arctic suffering, though, we need to look a little deeper. With just a little digging, the true culprit comes to light—And yes, its climate change.
According to NASA, “the effects of climate change are expected to be the most exaggerated and have the biggest impact” in the Arctic.
“All climate models are projecting an ice-free summer within the next 20 years or so,” says Ron Kwok of the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab.
For killer whale prey, no more ice means nowhere left to hide. Ferguson and his co-authors suggest that this could be a dramatic development, and not just for narwhal.
“Most traditional science views changes to occur from the bottom up—the food supply changes and it ripples its way up the food web,” Ferguson suggests. “A few of us believe the changes can happen from the top down and be just as significant.”
Even if scientists are unsure of its direction, change will certainly come. The best we can do now is understand and anticipate that change and maybe, just maybe, limit how much change ends up happening.
Chip Miller, Kwok’s associate heeds a warning. “Because we expect changes to happen largest and first in Arctic, the Arctic acts as an early warning system for the entire planet.”
The sirens are singing. Are you listening?