The rapid decline of sea ice in the Arctic, once caused by the climate crisis and now a major contributor to it, has grave consequences globally. But for the region’s delicate ecosystems and its diverse wildlife, the impacts are closer to home.The melting sea ice alters the availability of essential habitats and disrupts food webs, endangering a wide variety of species. Keep reading to get a better understanding of the impacts of sea ice melt on several key Arctic animals.
The Arctic Species Facing the Most Dire Threats
Here are some of the species that are hit hardest by Arctic sea ice loss.
The Building Block of Food Chains: Algae and Phytoplankton
Algae and phytoplankton form the foundation of Arctic marine food webs. It’s also well worth noting that all of the phytoplankton in the world’s oceans together provides half the Earth’s oxygen supply. Sea ice provides a stable environment for algae and phytoplankton to thrive and reproduce. As sea ice diminishes, the related change in sunlight penetration stimulates changes in the growth and composition of these organism communities.
These alterations can disrupt the entire Arctic food web, beginning with the zooplankton species (like krill) that consume these organisms. Without zooplankton, seabirds, bowhead whales, and fish species like Arctic cod are left without an adequate food supply, as are the many species that rely on fish as a food source.
Sea ice is critical for Beluga whale habitat preservation. Beluga whales inhabit the Arctic waters and depend on sea ice for various activities, including mating, giving birth, and evading predators. The melting sea ice affects nearly every aspect of their lives, from food availability to migration patterns to overall habitat quality. Reduced sea ice cover can leave whales more vulnerable to shipping traffic and noise pollution and with greater exposure to predators.
Polar bears are among the most iconic species affected by sea ice melt. They overwhelmingly rely on sea ice, which makes up over 96% of critical polar bear habitat. They use sea ice as a hunting platform to catch seals, their primary food source. With diminishing ice cover, polar bears face longer fasting periods, reduced hunting success, and increased energy expenditure. The loss of sea ice also limits their ability to reach important denning areas and negatively impacts their survival rates, reproductive success, and overall population size.
As a result of the ice melt, polar bears are now spending more time on land. As this trend increases, so does the risk of human contact and conflict with them.
Saimee Ringed Seals
Saimee ringed seals are a species native to Lake Saimaa in Finland. These (along with other seal species, including bearded, spotted, ribbon, harp, and hooded varieties) depend on ice and snow in multiple ways. Rising temperatures disrupt the balance of their ecosystem, affecting ice formation and reducing available breeding habitats. Lake Saimaa is a freshwater lake, however sea ice melt directly correlates with a decrease in winter lake ice cover. Seals in particular are known for their breeding site fidelity, or habit of returning to specific areas to breed each year.
In addition, without ice cover, seal pups are susceptible to both animal and human predation. Because of this double threat to reproduction and offspring survival, ringed seals are at a heightened risk of extinction.
Walruses rely on sea ice as resting platforms between foraging bouts and as safe places for young calves to stay while their parents hunt for food. With reduced sea ice cover, walruses face increased competition for suitable haul-out sites (places to rest and breed). This leads to overcrowding and the heightened risk of stampedes, which can result in injury or death. Further, the loss of sea ice limits their access to food resources, potentially impacting their overall health and natural functions—including reproduction.
Other Threatened Species: Land Animals
Here are some examples of other species at risk due to the loss of Arctic sea ice melt.
Arctic foxes heavily rely on sea ice as a hunting platform and breeding ground. The shrinking sea ice diminishes their access to prey, such as seals and seabirds, making it increasingly challenging to secure sufficient food sources for themselves and their young. The loss of sea ice also threatens their denning sites, leading to population decline and reduced reproductive success.
Musk oxen inhabit the Arctic tundra and have adapted to withstand harsh winters. However, the impacts of sea ice melt extend beyond the marine environment. As sea ice declines, the availability of forage plants decreases, affecting the food supply for musk oxen. This reduction in nutritious vegetation can lead to malnutrition, reduced body condition, and increased susceptibility to diseases.
Reindeer are an integral part of the Arctic ecosystem, supporting indigenous communities and acting as a keystone species. The decline in sea ice alters weather patterns, which in turn affects the availability and quality of reindeer forage (the grasses and plants they feed on). Changes in vegetation growth and distribution can lead to nutritional deficiencies, population declines, and increased vulnerability to parasites and predators.
Urgent global efforts are needed to mitigate the climate crisis and preserve the delicate balance of these unique habitats and the species that depend on them. Fortunately, you can make a difference with just a few clicks of your mouse.
Help Stop Arctic Sea Ice Melt With Arctic Ice Project
Arctic Ice Project’s efforts are crucial to the protection of Arctic sea ice. You can do your part in this critical fight by spreading awareness of and supporting efforts to mitigate the climate crisis. One way to do this is by donating to a climate restoration nonprofit like Arctic Ice Project. No donation is too small, though if you are not able to make a financial contribution, you can also share the message and inspire others to act through social media and by staying informed on climate projects.
With your donation you can help ensure that Arctic sea life and humanity on our planet not only sees tomorrow, but a brighter one. Please consider donating to Arctic Ice Project today!