The Oldest, Coldest Mammals May Be Some of the Best Prepared for Climate Change

  • 2016-01-14
  • Nautilus

The Arctic they grew up in is unrecognizable, but bowhead whales are oddly calm. They appear to be unexpectedly benefitting from the warmer, less icy climate that has emerged over the past decade. Last month, it was announced that the Arctic in 2015 reached the warmest temperatures ever observed, and that it is warming twice as fast other parts of the world. It’s also losing ice at a faster rate than forecasts have predicted—and is expected to be ice-free by at most summer 2040.

This means changes underwater, too. More sunlight hitting surface water and changes in ocean circulation, fueled by warmer waters and the stronger storms associated with them, are boosting the numbers of krill and other planktons in some Arctic seas. Sue Moore, a NOAA biologist, calls this a “new normal” in the Arctic. And bowhead whales, at least in the Pacific Arctic of Alaska and northwestern Canada, where the most and best data is available, appear to be just fine with that.

How are these massive whales—which populate the Arctic year-round and regularly live for more than a century—coping in an ecosystem different than the one they grew up in? Solving the mystery could shed light on who will and won’t inherit the changing Arctic. It could also have implications for the world economy, as increasing Arctic ship traffic may be on a literal collision course with increased whale numbers.

“At least for now,” says Moore, “it’s a very good time to be a bowhead whale. In terms of resiliency, bowheads could be near the top because they’re already built to survive in tough conditions.” They have one of the lowest core body temperatures and the ability to survive long periods of near fasting while relying on massive energy stores. “If the ice goes away,” she says, “it’s not doomsday [for them].” She also noted that a study from earlier this year found bowhead body condition—at least off of Alaska and surrounding regions—to be actually better today, in the new low-ice normal, and that their numbers are increasing.