Seals on Thin Ice

University of Texas Marine Science Institute
Seals on Thin Ice
A stretch of snow-covered ice surrounded by Arctic waters might seem like an inhospitable place. But for “ice seals,” these sea ice formations are an essential habitat.

In the polar oceans, sea water freezes in the fall, hardens and thickens over winter, and begins to melt when temperatures rise in spring and summer. Slabs of sea ice provide platforms for seals and other polar animals.

Harp, ringed, bearded and ribbon seals are all considered ice seals because their life cycles are closely tied to sea ice. The ringed seal, for example, almost never ventures on land, relying on sea ice as a place for molting, resting and breeding. In the spring, mother ringed seals build up snow on the sea ice to form small caves, or lairs, for protecting and raising their pups.

But climate change is bringing warmer temperatures which threatens the survival of seal pups. Unusually warm temperatures can cause sea ice to break apart earlier than normal, separating pups from their parents before the young can fend for themselves. If there isn’t enough snow on the sea ice for females to build lairs, pups might be born unsheltered on the ice, leaving them vulnerable to predators or freezing. In 2002, an extremely small  amount of sea ice meant some mother seals were forced to give birth to their pups in the water.

Scientists have begun tagging Arctic ice seals to find out more about their movements and life cycle. They’re hoping to better understand how rising temperatures affect seals that depend on sea ice – as the ice itself keeps shrinking.