Sunday, 2 June 2013

Enchanting Whale Songs, Stories of a Changing Arctic

NEW YORK — By tracking and listening to whales, scientists have unlocked secrets about the dramatic changes currently underway in the Arctic. They've also learned that these whales are talented singers.

In a wide-ranging talk here at the American Museum of Natural History, researchers and a documentary filmmaker revealed how declining levels of ice have affected the Arctic, as well as the humans that dwell there. Their stories, recounted during a session of the World Science Festival, billed as an annual celebration and exploration of science, reveal the difficulty and beauty of working in the harsh, and quickly changing, environment of the far North.

There, ice is paramount to the traditional order of life. "Ice in the Arctic is everybody's best friend," said Kate Stafford, a researcher at the University of Washington. "All animals and people depend on it."

Whale song
Stafford has used special devices to listen to the songs of bowhead whales, which has allowed her to track their movements and estimate their populations. In a 2012 study, she heard many more bowhead calls than expected, suggesting that the huge beasts — once hunted to the brink of extinction — may be rebounding. The songs were also more complex than those of other whales, sounding almost like a bird's song, she said.

Stafford also found that, in some cases, bowheads in the Fram Strait, east of Greenland, seem to prefer hanging out under old, thick ice. This is perhaps because the ice acts as a better "theater" in which to broadcast their beautiful calls, or perhaps it offers more protection from killer whales, she said. As ice continues to dwindle in the Arctic — 2012 saw the smallest extent of winter ice ever recorded — killer whales can advance farther north, pressuring even the enormous bowhead whales.

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