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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Emerging Science Note/Narwhals Track Climate Change

Air Date: Week of May 4, 2007

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Narwhals swimming in Baffin Bay (off the coast of Greenland). (Photo: Kristin Laidre/Polar Science Center/APL/University of Washington)

Researchers are looking to small whales called narwhals for information about climate change. Meghan Vigeant reports.

Transcript

[NARWHALS]

VIGEANT: A Cracker Jack team of researchers has been at work this winter bravely diving and swimming in the chilly arctic waters between northern Canada and Greenland.

[THEME]

VIGEANT: The divers have been gathering data beneath the ice of Baffin Bay. You can spot them when they surface by their unusual tusks. Oh, that’s right, these novice oceanographers are actually narwhals, sometimes known as the “unicorn of the sea.”

The single, long, spiraled tooth growing from a male narwhal’s upper lip was likely the origin of the myth of the unicorn. Fairy-tales aside, now these narwhals are getting the facts.

  


Narwhals swimming in Baffin Bay (off the coast of Greenland). (Photo: Kristin Laidre/Polar Science Center/APL/University of Washington)

Narwhals dive extremely deep in their hunt for food in Baffin Bay, as far down as 1,500 meters deep, or almost a mile. And that made them attractive partners for biologists from the University of Washington, wanting to study the region’s changing climate. The researchers outfitted three narwhals with special sensors that record the temperature of the water as the whales plumb the depths of the bay. When they resurface, the devices send the temperature and the location data to a satellite, which sends it on to the computer of marine biologist Kristin Leidre.

The data Leidre and the narwhals are collecting may help climatologists answer big questions about what’s going on as the region warms and more ice melts. The narwhals winter home of Baffin Bay is tied to the Gulf Stream, a major influence on the climate of North America and Europe. But the bay’s dense winter ice cover has made it difficult for scientists to get temperature data. Now, with the help of nature’s legendary unicorn of the sea, the picture may become clearer.

And that’s no fairy tale.

 

 

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