Featured Image Credit: National Geographic
By Laura O’Brien
After the hottest winter ever recorded in the Arctic, scientists continue to try to learn more about what rising seas will mean for life as we know it. In part, they aim to predict how high and how fast our seas will rise. Greenland’s ice cap poses special problems in trying to collect data. The depths of glaciers are extremely hard and expensive to measure, and work in the Arctic itself is difficult and costly. The ice cap contains 10% of the entire world’s freshwater, and if it melted completely it could cause sea levels to rise 20 feet. The thick ice makes it difficult to measure what is going on at the bottom. It is absolutely critical that scientists obtain as much information as possible, so they have turned to some unlikely allies.
Narwhals, the unicorns of the ocean, are actually benefitting from the melting ice (for now). When ice falls into the water, the turbulence of the water brings plankton and krill to the surface and making them easy to catch. The narwhals noticed this and have taken to hanging out under the ice. This is perfect for scientists because the range in depth that narwhals can dive fits the range that the scientists need to study. This means that by tracking the narwhals, the scientists can begin to map out the area underneath the ice.
Narwhals might be the most majestic creatures to help scientists, but they are certainly not the first. Seals and sharks have helped map the ocean floor in other areas of the world. Although their positions are not unique, however, the narwhals’ work is incredibly important and NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland is fortunate to have such a resource at their disposal. Their 10 million dollar research project intends to track the ice throughout the year, to observe its seasonal fluctuation. The end goal is to determine how fast Greenland’s ice will melt. (How long we will have to prepare.)
While the project leader, Josh Willis, is concerned that the new data will reveal a shorter timeline for the ice to melt, let’s hope that the narwhals’ data shows something more promising.
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