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Ecol Appl. 2006 Jun;16(3):932-44.

Trends in sea ice cover within habitats used by bowhead whales in the western Arctic.

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  • 1NOAA/Alaska Fisheries Science Center, c/o Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington, 1013 NE 40th Street, Seattle, Washington 98105, USA.


We examined trends in sea ice cover between 1979 and 2002 in four months (March, June, September, and November) for four large (approximately 100,000 km2) and 12 small (approximately 10,000 km2) regions of the western Arctic in habitats used by bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus). Variation in open water with year was significant in all months except March, but interactions between region and year were not. Open water increased in both large and small regions, but trends were weak with least-squares regression accounting for < or =34% of the total variation. In large regions, positive trends in open water were strongest in September. Linear fits were poor, however, even in the East Siberian, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas, where basin-scale analyses have emphasized dramatic sea ice loss. Small regions also showed weak positive trends in open water and strong interannual variability. Open water increased consistently in five small regions where bowhead whales have been observed feeding or where oceanographic models predict prey entrainment, including: (1) June, along the northern Chukotka coast, near Wrangel Island, and along the Beaufort slope; (2) September, near Wrangel Island, the Barrow Arc, and the Chukchi Borderland; and (3) November, along the Barrow Arc. Conversely, there was very little consistent change in sea ice cover in four small regions considered winter refugia for bowhead whales in the northern Bering Sea, nor in two small regions that include the primary springtime migration corridor in the Chukchi Sea. The effects of sea ice cover on bowhead whale prey availability are unknown but can be modeled via production and advection pathways. Our conceptual model suggests that reductions in sea ice cover will increase prey availability along both pathways for this population. This analysis elucidates the variability inherent in the western Arctic marine ecosystem at scales relevant to bowhead whales and contrasts basin-scale depictions of extreme sea ice retreats, thinning, and wind-driven movements.

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