A fine balance
Beluga is the Russian word for white. These whales are also nick-named 'sea canaries' because of the noises they make, whistles, clicks, grunts, squeals and screeches, which can be heard through ships' hulls
A large head with a distinctive bow-shaped mouth, the Bowhead whale can break through ice up to 60 cm thick.
The Narwhal is called the unicorn of the sea because of its strange horn-like tooth, which can grow up to 3m long. It is only found in the Arctic.
Aboriginal subsistence whaling
The Inuit have always hunted whales for food. The skin of the Beluga and Narwhal are rich in Vitamin C. Muktuq (Narhwal skin) is a local delicacy eaten raw. Bowhead whales provided meat and blubber used as oil for cooking and lighting.
Whale blubber and oil has also been highly prized by visitors to the region who carried out commercial hunting operations for several centuries, seriously depleting the species. The oil was considered a luxury.
- Find out more about the limits for aboriginal subsistence whaling at the International Whaling Commission website
On thin ice
'Climate change has a negative impact on polar bears and their habitat and is the most important long term threat facing polar bears.' (The Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, March 2009)
The Polar Bear, is the icon of the Arctic, but for how much longer? They are under threat from changes in habitat, pollutants and hunting.
Polar Bears are the top Arctic predator, apart from humans. They depend on sea ice for their existence; they use it as a platform from which to hunt seals. Recent findings show that the ice is thinning and melting due to global warming. More polar bears are now stranded ashore when the sea ice breaks up earlier in the spring. Some females are struggling to get ashore in the autumn in time to find a winter den so they can to give birth to their offspring. What will happen to them if as scientists predict there will be no ice by 2040?
The US Geological Survey says that the animals are likely to lose 42% of their summer sea ice habitat by mid-century, cutting the world's polar bear population - estimated at 25,000 - by two-thirds.
Despite this dramatic projection, researchers note that polar bears range across a variety of nations, each with its own conservation approaches, and a variety of habitats, each of which will be affected differently by climate change. Their fates may vary from place to place, too. "I don't believe the polar bear will go extinct, but in some areas they will be heavily reduced and may disappear," says veterinary biologist Christian Sonne of the National Environmental Research Institute in Roskilde, Denmark. Factors other than global warming compound stress on the bears, including the accumulation in fat of polychlorinated biphenyls and other pollutants that lower reproductive capacity and weaken the immune system.
Projecting the fate of a creature that ranges over more than 25° of latitude is difficult. The polar bear specialist group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has identified 19 distinct populations that live in markedly different habitats (see map above). Some populations are clearly in far more trouble than others," says biologist Ian Stirling of the Canadian Wildlife Service in Edmonton, Alberta
For instance, bears that spend the majority of their time on ice may have to migrate long distances to maintain their lifestyle, an additional stress if food is scarce. But polar bear populations in the Canadian archipelago may be fairly stable in the next few decades, as projections suggest that summer sea ice there will be more persistent.
Still others, such as the southernmost populations around Canada's Hudson Bay, may already be experiencing the effects of climate change. Recent studies have shown that such bears are losing valuable hunting time in the spring, when the animals take in most of the year's energy by fattening up on nesting ringed seals. West of Hudson Bay, young bears are less likely to survive after earlier sea-ice break-ups, a process which now occurs roughly three weeks earlier than it did 30 years ago.
Source: 21 May 2008 | Nature 453, - (2008) | doi:10.1038/453432a
What are the threats faced by the polar bear?
What can be done to protect the polar bear in the face of climate change?
Will there be polar bears in the Arctic in 2040?
Polar Bear Patrol
As the ice retreats, bears will be forced to stay on land to look for food, and this will result in more bear-human interactions. This can already be seen in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada and in Chukotka, Russia
The town of Churchill is also known as the 'Polar Bear Capital of the World'. In spring polar bears which have spent the winter months on the land begin to move towards the shore. They wait on the peninsula until the water freezes on Hudson Bay when they can return to the ice to hunt for seals. The opportunity to see polar bears close up attracts many tourists, who view them from a safe distance in 'tundra buggies' which are specially modified buses. The polar bears often wander into the town where they are tranquilised and held in enclosures until they can be released at a safe distance from the town.
Residents living in a remote Arctic village in Chukotka, Russia, noticed growing numbers of polar bears on land each autumn. In 2006 a polar bear killed a young girl in a neighbouring village. Together with the World Wildlife Fund, the village leaders introduced a 'polar bear patrol' to help protect both people and bears. The 'Umky Patrol' (Umky means polar bear in the Chukchi language) is very successful, neither humans nor bears have been harmed and the patrol also collects useful information about the bears.
Never stick your head in a Polar Bear's mouth.
Ny-Alesund Safety Guide(!)
Nick Cox works as the station manager at the NERC Svalbard Research station - read his tips on what to do if you see a polar bear.
I teach rifle and polar bear safety. I have seen countless bears and have only once had a near encounter where I had to chase a mother and cub away.
1: If a day were an hour a bear sleeps for 50 minutes. Beware sleeping bears - whistle, talk make any noise to alert a sleeping bear and wake it in time for it to gather its wits and make a retreat.
2: A mother with cub or cubs is always dangerous.
3: Two year old cubs that have just left their mother are extremely dangerous. They are easily frightened and often hungry. Some have had to be shot in self defence. Their bellies contained seaweed.
4: If you see a bear, get down wind and head for an area, perhaps high ground, with a clear view. Call on your radio for assistance. Make flares and rifles ready. Rifle safety must not be forgotten. There have been some near miss incidents where rifle safety has been second to bear safety.
5: Bears zig zag and can for no apparent reason turn 180 degrees in their tracks. Do not let down your guard if the bear appears to be going away from you.
6: If a bear approaches close ranks and stand in a tight group. They hate the noise of a plastic bag (rucksack liner) being shaken at them.If the bear approaches closer, fire a flare or rifle round at the ground between you and the bear or at a safe bank of ground where the flare or rifle round will safely bury itself.
7: If you have to retreat drop a piece of clothing which the bear might investigate allowing you more time to retreat.
Nick Cox, station manager at the NERC Svalbard Research station
Watch these rules in operation when two cameramen are stalked by a polar bear in the Canadian Arctic (BBC i-player).
Future of the species
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault - a bunker designed to keep samples of the world's seeds safe at -18°C - opened in February 2008 in northern Norway.
Since then, it has received a further 4 tonnes of seeds, bringing its collection up to 15 tonnes. That makes a grand total of 320,554 seed samples from 2938 different plant species, deposited by 220 different countries. The next deposit, scheduled to coincide with the vault's first anniversary on 26 February 2009, will consist of 80,000 seed samples.
Shortly after opening, engineers found that the vault's entrance tunnel had been damaged by thawing permafrost. No seeds were harmed, and the damage has now been repaired.
It will store as many seeds known to humans as possible to prevent important agricultural and wild plants from becoming rare or extinct in the event of a global disaster such as global warming, a meteorite strike, nuclear or biological warfare.
based on information from 26 February 2008
| Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.623
Why is maintaining biodiversity important?
What seeds would YOU choose store in the seed bank?
Are there any plants, landscapes or environments that you would definitely want protected by storing seeds?
What plants do you think are most useful to humans now? How about in the future?
There are already over 1400 local seed banks around the world, but many are in politically unstable or environmentally threatened nations.
So why is Svalbard a good location?