impacts of climate change on marine mammals

Climate change is affecting ocean ecosystems around the planet in myriad ways.  The Antarctic Peninsula is warming faster than any other region on the planet, and the most visible change is the loss of annual sea ice in the region.  Sea ice is a critical feature for the survival of Antarctic krill, the main prey item for baleen whales (and many other predators) around Antarctica, and decreased abundance could have dramatic impacts on the recovery of whales in the region.  Not only is this information critical for understanding whale health, but it also provides us with the necessary information to begin the process of designating specially protected areas where whales (and other krill predators) can forage without competition from a growing commercial krill fishery.  We are working with the National Science Foundation, the Antarctic Wildlife Trust, and OneOcean Expeditions to study the behavior and ecology of baleen whales in Antarctica to understand the impacts of climate change on this unique marine ecosystem.  

Minke whales depend on ice for their survival

Around the Antarctic Peninsula, climate change is causing a significant decrease in sea ice cover. As Minke whales take cover in the sea ice to hide from killer whales, these changes makes Minke whales more vulnerable to predators


Baleen whales around the Antarctic Peninsula are slowly rebounding from a century of commercial whaling in Antarctica, and are doing so, in the face of a rapidly changing environment.  We are working to try and understand the behavior and movement patterns of humpback and minke whales throughout their feeding season and in relation to changes in sea ice and how this affects individual health and population growth.  By deploying motion-sensing and satellite-linked tags to whales throughout their feeding season we can begin to determine where whales go and how their activities change as environmental conditions change.  Using UAS (unoccupied aerial systems) we can make measurements of individual animal sizes throughout the feeding season and determine the times when whales are adding mass through energy gain and relate this to their location and feeding behavior.  From biopsy samples we can determine the sex and pregnancy status of each individual whale.  In combination, we can then determine when whales are feeding the most, where these locations are, and how changing environmental conditions affect whale health.  All of this information can then be used to help navigate the process of designating specially protected areas where whales and other krill predators can forage without the potential for competition from the growing krill fishery.


Understanding the behavior of whales in the Antarctic

As climate change and krill fishing increase in the Antarctic, the pressure to learn more about these  animals becomes more urgent. New technologies are helping scientists at COA better understand and map the most important areas where whales feed, so we can protect them before it’s too late.