How are Arctic Animals in Canada Affected by Climate Change?

Lushani Nanayakkara
Readability
6.8

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Arctic animals have evolved to thrive in harsh arctic ecosystems, but the environmental footprint created by climate change is affecting their survival.

Fish, seals, whales, birds and many other organisms call the Canadian Arctic home. The environmental conditions in the Arctic can be harsh. Luckily, these animals have features that help them survive and thrive in Arctic conditions. 

But climate change could cause big trouble for some of these animals. Let’s look at two examples: polar bears and narwhals.

Polar Bears

When you think of Arctic animals, what comes to mind? For many people, it’s polar bears. These animals have some cool features that help them survive the Arctic cold. For example, underneath all that white fur, they have black skin, which helps them absorb heat and stay warm.

Polar bears spend at least part of their life in the ice-covered waters of the Arctic. That’s why scientists classify them as marine mammals, like whales and seals. They’re powerful swimmers, with a large amount of stored fat to help them float, large paws to paddle with and strong back legs to use as rudders.

Even though they spend much of their time in the water, polar bears also need Arctic ice. They use sea ice as a platform from which to hunt, mate and travel. Polar bears mainly feed on ringed and bearded seals, which also depend on sea ice for hunting and rearing pups.

Polar bear mother and cub in Churchill, Manitoba. Notice the vehicle tire tracks
Polar bear mother and cub in Churchill, Manitoba. Notice the vehicle tire tracks (Source: Brocken Inaglory [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons).

Did you know?

Polar bears usually live between 25 and 30 years in the wild. They can weigh up to 680 kilograms! 

Narwhals

Narwhals are highly social, toothed whales found only in the Arctic Ocean. Males have a tusk coming out of their heads, which is why narwhals have been nicknamed “unicorns of the sea.” The tusk is actually an extra-long tooth with some feeling. 

Pod of narwhals. Note the single tusk on the lead narwhal
Pod of narwhals. Note the single tusk on the lead narwhal (Source: Public domain image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration via Wikimedia Commons).

 

Like polar bears, narwhals depend on ice cover. They migrate seasonally between their wintering grounds (mainly Baffin Bay and northern Davis Strait) and summer ranges (mainly Greenland and Baffin Island).

Narwhal range showing both the summering and wintering ranges
Narwhal range showing both the summering and wintering ranges (Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada).

 

Changing ice conditions tell narwhals when it’s time to migrate. In the summer, they stay close to shore. When fall arrives, ice begins to cover these areas, threatening the narwhals’ ability to hunt. This is when they migrate offshore and settle in at their winter grounds. Dense ice packs form in these areas, too. But the animals can continue to hunt because of gaps in the ice. 

Did you know?

Male narwhals sometimes cross tusks with each other. Scientists think they do this to determine their social hierarchy and compete for females.

Arctic animals and climate change 

As you can see, the lives of both of these animals are deeply connected to ice cover. But global temperature increases will reduce the amount of ice in the Arctic. Some scientists think that by the 2030s, Arctic summers might be ice-free! This could make the future very uncertain for polar bears, narwhals and many other species that depend on ice.

Reduced ice cover might lead to other threats, too. Less ice will make the Arctic more accessible for human activities like tourism and oil exploration. How do you think these activities could affect animals like polar bears and narwhals?

Starting Points

Connecting and Relating

  • Have you ever lived in or visited the Arctic? If not, would you like to visit or live in the Arctic? Why/why not?
  • Have you ever seen a polar bear or narwhal up close in a marine park or at a zoo?
  • Have you ever considered how the pollution generated by people living in the south could affect the Arctic? Why/why not?

Connecting and Relating

  • Have you ever lived in or visited the Arctic? If not, would you like to visit or live in the Arctic? Why/why not?
  • Have you ever seen a polar bear or narwhal up close in a marine park or at a zoo?
  • Have you ever considered how the pollution generated by people living in the south could affect the Arctic? Why/why not?

Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment

  • Explain how human activities may be affecting climate in arctic regions like Canada’s north. Give examples where possible.
  • Why do you think some people refuse to accept that human activities contribute to climate change? Explain.
  • Should governments create laws that force society to make changes that are necessary to reduce climate change? Why or why not?

Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment

  • Explain how human activities may be affecting climate in arctic regions like Canada’s north. Give examples where possible.
  • Why do you think some people refuse to accept that human activities contribute to climate change? Explain.
  • Should governments create laws that force society to make changes that are necessary to reduce climate change? Why or why not?

Exploring Concepts

  • What adaptations do arctic mammals have for life in the Arctic?
  • What changes are being witnessed in arctic regions that are attributed to climate change?
  • How could less ice cover affect whales and seals? Explain.
  • What might be the net effect on arctic food chains if large mammals, such as narwhals and polar bears, disappear? Explain.

Exploring Concepts

  • What adaptations do arctic mammals have for life in the Arctic?
  • What changes are being witnessed in arctic regions that are attributed to climate change?
  • How could less ice cover affect whales and seals? Explain.
  • What might be the net effect on arctic food chains if large mammals, such as narwhals and polar bears, disappear? Explain.

Nature of Science/Nature of Technology

  • How do scientists track and record the size of arctic animal populations, like polar bears and narwhals?
  • What types of data are environmental scientists gathering to measure and analyze climate changes in arctic regions of the world? What different technologies are being used in gathering this data?

Nature of Science/Nature of Technology

  • How do scientists track and record the size of arctic animal populations, like polar bears and narwhals?
  • What types of data are environmental scientists gathering to measure and analyze climate changes in arctic regions of the world? What different technologies are being used in gathering this data?

Teaching Suggestions

  • This article can be used to support teaching and learning of Biology, Environmental Science and Climate Change related to arctic animals, arctic ecosystems, arctic pollution, climate change, ecosystems, environmental footprint, evolution and sustainability.

  • After students have learned about the wider global effects of climate change, teachers could lead a discussion to examine how climate change could lead to the breakdown of food chains and food webs and the broader effects this could have on the human population.
  • Teachers could use a Consequence Mapping learning strategy to provide students with an opportunity to consolidate recently-learned information. Ready-to-use reproducibles for the Consequence Mapping Learning Strategy are available in [Google doc] and [PDF]

Teaching Suggestions

  • This article can be used to support teaching and learning of Biology, Environmental Science and Climate Change related to arctic animals, arctic ecosystems, arctic pollution, climate change, ecosystems, environmental footprint, evolution and sustainability.

  • After students have learned about the wider global effects of climate change, teachers could lead a discussion to examine how climate change could lead to the breakdown of food chains and food webs and the broader effects this could have on the human population.
  • Teachers could use a Consequence Mapping learning strategy to provide students with an opportunity to consolidate recently-learned information. Ready-to-use reproducibles for the Consequence Mapping Learning Strategy are available in [Google doc] and [PDF]

Learn more

Polar Bear Factsheet

Factsheet from the World Wildlife Fund on polar bears.

Polar Bears

Article from National Geographic about polar bear adaptations, hunting habits, and breeding and behaviour.

Narwhal Whales

Facts and information on Narwhal Whales from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

References

Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program. (2017). Snow, water, ice and permafrost in the arctic: Summary for policy-makers.

Pew Charitable Trust. (2019). Arctic ecology.

Wassmann, P., Duarte, C. M., Agusti, S., & Sejr, M. K. (2011). Footprints of climate change in the Arctic marine ecosystem. Global Change Biology, 17(2), 1235-1249. DOI :10.1111/j.1365-2486.2010.02311.x