[Vision2020] Whale's odyssey sheds light on climate change, scientists say

Saundra Lund v2020 at ssl1.fastmail.fm
Sun Jun 26 18:29:42 PDT 2011

I really appreciate articles that transforms climate change discussion into
something understandable to all, as this article does, IMHO.






Whale's odyssey sheds light on climate change, scientists say 
'The implications are enormous. It's a threshold that has been crossed'


updated 6/26/2011 6:12:51 AM ET


AMSTERDAM - When a 43-foot gray whale was spotted off the Israeli town of
Herzliya last year, scientists came to a startling conclusion: it must have
wandered across the normally icebound route above Canada, where warm weather
had briefly opened a clear channel three years earlier.

On a microscopic level, scientists also have found plankton in the North
Atlantic where it had not existed for at least 800,000 years.

The whale's odyssey and the surprising appearance of the plankton indicates
a migration of species through the Northwest Passage, a worrying sign of how
global warming is affecting animals and plants in the oceans as well as on

"The implications are enormous. It's a threshold that has been crossed,"
said Philip C. Reid, of the Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science in
Plymouth, England.

"It's an indication of the speed of change that is taking place in our world
in the present day because of climate change," he said in a telephone
interview Friday.

Reid said the last time the world witnessed such a major incursion from the
Pacific was 2 million years ago, which had "a huge impact on the North
Atlantic," driving some species to extinction as the newcomers dominated the
competition for food.

Reid's study of plankton and the research on the whale, co-authored by Aviad
Scheinin of the Israel Marine Mammal Research and Assistance Center, are
among nearly 300 scientific papers written over the last 13 years that are
being synthesized and published this year by Project Clamer, a collaboration
of 17 institutes on climate change and the oceans.

Implications for fisheries
Changes in the oceans' chemistry and temperature could have implications for
fisheries, as species migrate northward to cooler waters, said Katja
Philippart, of the Royal Netherlands Institute of Sea Research who is
coordinating the project funded by the European Union.

"We try to put the information on the table for people who have to make
decisions. We don't say whether it's bad or good. We say there is a high
potential for change," she said.

The Northwest Passage, the route through the frigid archipelago from Alaska
across northern Canada, has been ice-free from one end to the other only
twice in recorded history, in 1998 and 2007. But the ice pack is retreating
farther and more frequently during the summers.

Plankton that had previously been found only in Atlantic sea bed cores from
800,000 years ago appeared in the Labrador Sea in 1999 - and then in massive
numbers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence two years later. Now it has established
itself as far south as the New York coast, Reid said.

The highly endangered gray whale sighted off the Israeli coast in May 2010
belonged to a species that was hunted to extinction in the Atlantic by the
mid-1700s. The same animal - identified by unique markings on its fluke, or
tail fin - appeared off the Spanish coast 22 days later, and has not been
reported seen since.

Though it was difficult to draw conclusions from one whale, the researchers
said its presence in the Mediterranean "coincides with a shrinking of Arctic
Sea ice due to climate change and suggests that climate change may allow
gray whales to re-colonize the North Atlantic."

That may be good for the whales, but other aspects of the ice melt could be
harmful to the oceans' biosystems, the scientists warn.

Plankton is normally the bottom of the marine food chain, but some are more
nutritious than others. Plankton changes have been blamed for the collapse
of some fish stocks and threats to fish-eating birds in the North Sea, the
studies show.

The migration of a solitary whale and two species of plankton is not of much
concern so far, Reid said. "It's the potential for further ones to come
through if the Arctic opens. That's the key message."

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