NASA Recruits Narwhals To Track Melting Arctic Sea Ice

Narwhals breaching in the seas of the Arctic. Kristin Laidre/NOAA Ocean Explorer Gallery.

Narwhals, a sea creature that looks like something from Dr Seuss' imagination, are unlikely foot soldiers in the fight against melting Arctic sea ice.

A NASA project called Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) uses a combination of ships, planes, and floating gadgets to track where and how fast warming ocean waters are melting Greenland’s ice. However, vast portions of the Arctic seas are clogged with treacherous fields of icebergs, making them hard to reach, which is why the project also employs the help of narwhals fitted with satellite-linked time-depth-temperature recorders.

The scientists on this project released a study back in 2010 about the data they had gathered using narwhals in the southern Baffin Bay, the portion of sea between Greenland and Canada’s Baffin Island. Now, NASA and the Office of Naval Research have agreed to fund a new study set to look into changes in Arctic ice around Melville Bay off the coast of northwestern Greenland. They are hoping this new study will also provide a rare and much-needed insight into the behavior of these shy, secretive whales.

It's easier to "let the narwhals be the oceanographers,” explained marine ecologist Kristin Laidre, though she points out these mysterious creatures aren’t the easiest colleagues to work with.

“They’re one of the worst study animals ever. They’re just really, really difficult. They are shy, they are elusive, they are sneaky. You can spend a month in the field and barely see a narwhal,” she said.

They can and do, however, make numerous dives each day to depths of down to 1,700 meters (5,577 feet). This gives the scientists a massive insight into this part of the ocean and ice variations of this largely inaccessible territory.

Narwhals, known as the “unicorns of the sea” due to their unusual single tusk (which is actually a tooth) live specifically in the chilly waters around Greenland, Canada, and Russia. Well versed with the freezing waters of the Arctic, they are able to swim beneath the vast planes of surface ice, and so by tagging them, the researchers receive information that otherwise wouldn't be available to them. 

“Not only will scientists learn about how warming oceans are melting Greenland but this project will also provide scientists more data about how narwhal behavior is linked to ocean temperature, salinity, and ice conditions in the fjord,” Ian Fenty, a NASA oceanographer who studies sea levels and ice, told NASA Sea Level Change

Sounds like a win-win situation to us.  

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