What Will Climate Change Mean for Whales? These Scientists Hope to Find Out.

The Ortelius ship sits docked at the Port of Ushuaia on March 10, 2016. Ushuaia, considered the southernmost city in the world, is located on the Beagle Channel in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago at the southern tip of Argentina. The channel, which is named for the British ship Beagle that Charles Darwin used to explore the area in the 1830's, is a gateway to Antarctica for the ships carrying tourists, scientists, and supplies to the Antarctic Peninsula and beyond; Photograph by Carolyn Van Houten
Writer Douglas Fox and photographer Carolyn Van Houten are spending 15 days aboard the M.V. Ortelius, docked here at the Port of Ushuaia on March 10, 2016, to join scientists conducting studies of humpback and minke whales in the glacial fjords along the Antarctic Peninsula. Follow their story here, then see more about life in Antarctica on the new show Deep Freeze, on the National Geographic Channel in fall 2016; Photograph by Carolyn Van Houten

2 p.m. local time, March 10, 2016, Post #1

On a blustery autumn day in Ushuaia, Argentina, 54 degrees south of the equator near the shredded, mountainous tip of South America, final preparations are under way on the M.V. Ortelius, a vessel strengthened for navigation in polar sea ice. This evening, tugboats will nudge her into open water, and she’ll depart for Antarctica.

On board will be 140 passengers and crew, including a team of scientists led by Ari Friedlaender, a marine ecologist from Oregon State University in Newport. The ship will spend most of its 15 days at sea exploring fjords along the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula—the gracefully curved tentacle of land that reaches up toward South America.

The peninsula is suffering from climate change in a way that few other parts of our planet are. Ari and his crew will be studying the connections between glaciers and whales, hoping to understand how the latter are responding to dramatic changes in their environment.

Ted Cheeseman, who’s running the tourist side of the operation, will also contribute to the science. For several years he’s been crowd-sourcing tourist photos from his cruises in order to contribute to a growing database of uniquely identified whales. Since humpbacks can be distinguished by the black-and-white marks on their tails—plus the odd scar from an orca attack—photographs taken here and there make it possible to document their movements over thousands of miles.

One of the many fjords we’ll visit is Andvord Bay. It’s bleak and beautiful, surrounded by jagged mountains. Glaciers pour into the bay from every side, their smooth surfaces ruptured and spider-webbed with crevasses large enough to swallow semi trucks. The smooth water is often strewn with bits of floating ice ranging in size from golf ball to apartment building. This glacial ice formed from snow that fell on the peninsula thousands of years ago, when modern humans were still mingling with Neanderthals and painting pictures on cave walls. On some days, Andvord Bay is so quiet that you can hear faint pops and crackles emanating from the water: the sound of those glacial chunks slowly melting.

Andvord and its neighboring bays can seem lifeless on shore, but below the water’s surface it’s a different story. During the austral summer and early fall, from December to April each year, these waters bustle with krill. A cubic yard of seawater (roughly enough to fill a bathtub) can hold 2,000 krill, and up to two million tons of these little critters can congregate in a single bay—enough to pile into two Empire State Buildings.

The continent’s knack for growing krill makes it a crucial lifeline to ecosystems in far-flung parts of the globe. Each year, thousands of humpback whales migrate to the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula to feed on those krill. Many come from coastal waters up and down the west side of South America, but a few migrate from as far away as American Samoa, just south of the equator in the Pacific Ocean—a round-trip of nearly 12,000 miles.

The peninsula owes its massive krill output to a finely tuned alchemy of glacier flow, winter sea ice, gentle winds, and even its undersea canyons, which guide the flow of deep-ocean currents. But this alchemy is starting to change.

The Port of Ushuaia is located on the Beagle Channel in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago at the southern tip of Argentina on March 9, 2016. The channel, which is named for the British ship Beagle that Charles Darwin used to explore the area in the 1830's, is a gateway to Antarctica for the ships carrying tourists, scientists, and supplies to the Antarctic Peninsula and beyond; Photograph by Carolyn Van Houten
The Port of Ushuaia is located on the Beagle Channel in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago at the southern tip of Argentina. The channel, which is named for the British ship that Charles Darwin used to explore the area in the 1830s, is a gateway to Antarctica for the ships carrying tourists, scientists, and supplies to the Antarctic Peninsula and beyond; Photograph by Carolyn Van Houten

The west side of the peninsula is warming five times faster than the rest of the planet. Average winter air temperatures in its northern section have risen a staggering 11°F in the last 50 years, and ocean waters are also warming, leading to thinner sea ice, which melts earlier in the spring. Sea ice used to cover this area for seven months each year. Now it only lasts four months.

Krill production seems to be falling in the hardest-hit, northern parts of the peninsula. And though it’s true that humpback whales are continuing to multiply as they recover from intense whaling in the decades after World War II, another iconic species, the Antarctic minke whale, is falling in number.

Friedlaender and his colleagues hope to learn more about these whales over the next two weeks. We’ll venture out with him in small Zodiacs as he sidles up to whales and tags them with tracking devices. He’ll monitor their detailed movements as they dive and lunge through swarms of krill. In some cases, he’ll even capture a whale’s-eye view of their underwater world using cameras attached to the trackers.

By eavesdropping on the private lives of these whales, Friedlaender hopes to learn how exactly they hunt for krill, how much energy they expend doing it, and how quickly they can put on the fatty blubber that will carry them through the rest of the year. By understanding the challenges they face today, he can predict their fate as the peninsula continues to warm in the coming decades.

This will be an unusual research expedition in that many of the passengers on the ship are actually tourists. Government-run research vessels are in high demand in the Antarctic, and Friedlaender, who has monitored whales on the peninsula all summer, has taken advantage of this opportunity to get down there one more time and observe them during the critical month of March, when summer gives way to fall.

Enough for now. The wind is kicking up, and we’ll depart soon. National Geographic will be represented by four people on board: me (the writer), Carolyn Van Houten (photographer), and Brian Adams and J.J. Kelley (both TV videographers). Wish us well—a storm is blowing into the Drake Passage as we speak, and our next 48 hours en route to Antarctica may not be so pleasant.

Writer Douglas Fox and photographer Carolyn Van Houten are spending 15 days aboard the M.V. Ortelius as the ship explores glacial fjords along the Antarctic Peninsula, conducting studies of humpback and minke whales. Follow their story here, then see more about life in Antarctica on the new show Deep Freeze, on the National Geographic Channel in fall 2016.

Comments

  1. Mike Grabowski
    Bay City, Michigan
    March 15, 2016, 9:10 pm

    What an adventure. Be safe. Love to my sister Maureen. Happy St. Patrick’s Day

  2. Troy
    Jakarta
    March 16, 2016, 11:30 pm

    nice article.. thanks for sharing about how we can safe the whale before its too late…
    http://www.toprankindonesia.com/

  3. […] What Will Climate Change Mean for… […]

  4. John Swallow
    United States
    March 19, 2016, 2:17 am

    “The west side of the peninsula is warming five times faster than the rest of the planet. Average winter air temperatures in its northern section have risen a staggering 11°F in the last 50 years, and ocean waters are also warming, leading to thinner sea ice, which melts earlier in the spring. Sea ice used to cover this area for seven months each year. Now it only lasts four months.”

    Would the truth be too much to ask for from these people writing this story?

    “03.06.2015 17:51 Age: 115 days”
    “Sea ice extent in Antarctica last month set a new record high for the month of May, according to data from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).”
    http://www.reportingclimatescience.com/news-stories/article/antarctic-sea-ice-sets-new-high-in-may.html

    “Antarctic researchers ponder challenges posed by increasing sea ice”
    11 May 2015 1:00 pm
    “The area covered by Antarctic sea ice has been growing roughly 1.2% each decade since 1979. Last September, it reached a record 20 million square kilometers surrounding the 14 square kilometer continent. The combined 34 million square kilometers of ice at the end of the austral winter is more than 3.5 times the area of the United States.”
    http://news.sciencemag.org/climate/2015/05/antarctic-researchers-ponder-challenges-posed-increasing-sea-ice

    “For scientists working on the continent, sea ice has become a major logistical headache. Most research stations are located on the coast, and shippers previously counted on the ice breaking up so their vessels could get near shore, says Rob Wooding, general manager of operations for the Australian Antarctic Division in Kingston. But that hasn’t happened for several years at Australia’s Mawson station, says Wooding, who is also vice-chair of the workshop sponsor, the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs. “In the 2013 to 2014 season we couldn’t get anywhere near Mawson due to the sea ice; we had to get fuel in there by helicopter,” he says. But helicopters are not a long-term solution because of their cost and limited capacity.”
    http://news.sciencemag.org/climate/2015/05/antarctic-researchers-ponder-challenges-posed-increasing-sea-ice

  5. John Swallow
    March 19, 2016, 2:29 am

    I certainly hope that the M.V. Ortelius, does not encounter the problems that the M.V. Akademik Shokalskiy did in 2013. 
    “Eighty three years ago today, Mawson was sailing along the Antarctic coast. In 2013, global warming nutcases trying to retrace Mawson’s route are hoping an icebreaker comes and saves them.
    Sir DOUGLAS MAWSON’S second expedition on SCOTT’S Discovery to Antarctic waters south of the Indian Ocean and Australia is by this time already near the coast which he skirted and explored in the Summer of 1929-30. He identified Enderby and Kemp Lands, first seen by British explorers a hundred years before.
    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FB0D11F73F5C117A93CAAB1789D95F448385F9

    “A Russian vessel is stranded in ice off the coast of Antarctica with 74 people onboard, including the scientific team recreating explorer Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition from a century ago.”[…]
    “Had the ship carrying the trio of explorers in 1912, the Aurora, gotten icebound the same way the M.V. Akademik Shokalskiy did, there would have been no rescue option and certain death.”[…]
    “One hundred years after Mawson’s journey, we still don’t know much about the Antarctic.”[…]
    As may be expected, global warming might play a role in this, he suggests, particularly with respect to melted ice in the East Antarctic.
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131226-russian-ship-stuck-ice-mawson-trek-antarctica/?rptregcta=reg_free_np&rptregcampaign=20131016_rw_membership_r1p_intl_ot_w#

  6. Nha khoa uy tin Binh Thanh
    Việt Nam
    March 19, 2016, 7:53 am

    How amzing topic, thanks for sharing. The continent’s knack for growing krill makes it a crucial lifeline to ecosystems in far-flung parts of the globe. Each year, thousands of humpback whales migrate to the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula to feed on those krill. Many come from coastal waters up and down the west side of South America, but a few migrate from as far away as American Samoa, just south of the equator in the Pacific Ocean—a round-trip of nearly 12,000 miles.

    Nha khoa uy tín quận bình thạnh, nha khoa Minh Nghĩa, http://nhakhoadep.net/nha-khoa/

  7. Climate Change and the Whales | The Blog
    March 21, 2016, 11:09 pm

    […] The original article is here! […]

  8. […] Scientists Are Watching in Horror as Ice Collapses. Here’s an excerpt from National Geographic: “…Scattered melt ponds already appear on some of the ice shelves that surround the Antarctic mainland, much farther south than any that have collapsed so far. The amount of ice lost each year from all of Antarctica’s ice shelves has increased 12-fold between 1994 and 2012. Aside from warm air, the fringes of Antarctica’s ice are under assault from another source—warming ocean currents that melt the undersides of ice shelves. (Read more about research on what climate change will mean for whales.)…” […]

  9. […] What Will Climate Change Mean for… […]

  10. ACADEMIC INDONESIA
    Indonesia
    May 11, 2016, 3:01 pm

    wow amazing…. excellent post…thanks for your topic, i like it