Warming Oceans Put More Stress on Whales

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Climate change is making life more difficult for whales, dolphins and porpoises that must adapt to shrinking sea ice and decline in their prey species, according to a new study released by conservationists ahead of next week’s annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission.

Climate change impacts are greatest in the Arctic and the Antarctic, and the report finds cetaceans such as belugas, narwhals, and bowhead whales that rely on icy polar waters for habitat and food are likely to suffer most from the reduction in sea ice.

The cetaceans also must deal with changes in sea temperature and the freshening of seawater due to melting ice and increased rainfalls, finds the new report, “Whales in hot water?” published by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and the global conservation organization WWF.

“Whales, dolphins and porpoises have some capacity to adapt to their changing environment,” said Mark Simmonds, international director of science at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, WCDS.

“But the climate is now changing at such a fast pace that it is unclear to what extent whales and dolphins will be able to adjust, and we believe many populations to be very vulnerable to predicted changes.”

Accelerating climate change adds to disturbances from other human activities, such as chemical and noise pollution, collisions with ships, and entanglement in fishing nets, which kills some 1,000 cetaceans every day, the conservation groups report.

The Arctic could be seasonally free of sea ice as early as the year 2020, according to a report issued in April by the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center.

As sea ice shrinks, there will be more human activities, such as commercial shipping, oil, gas and mining exploration and development as well as military activities, in previously untouched areas of the Arctic, the conservation groups warn.

“This will result in much greater risks from oil and chemical spills, worse acoustic disturbance and more collisions between whales and ships,” said the report’s lead author Wendy Elliott, from WWF