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Fitted With Sensors, Antarctic Seals Observe Water Temperatures

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On a rocky island simply off the coast of West Antarctica, ecologist Lars Boehme is standing face-to-face with a 1,500-pound elephant seal, eyeing the animal’s bulbous nostril and jowls to see if he’s completed shedding his fur.

When the seal opens his mouth vast to bellow, Boehme waves his hand in entrance of his face like he’s simply smelled one thing foul. “You may hear the quantity of air going out and in,” Boehme stated of the animal, which is the size of a small automobile and has a distinctively bitter musk. “It’s like an air conditioner.”

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PRI’s The World


This story was printed with PRI’s The World, the award-winning public radio present and podcast on international points, information and insights from BBC, WGBH, PRI, and PRX.

Boehme is on a two-month scientific expedition to Thwaites Glacier, a Florida-sized glacier that sits on the heart of West Antarctica. It’s melting quick and will ultimately set off roughly 11 toes of worldwide sea stage rise. Scientists on the voyage are working to decode if, and when, which may occur.

Boehme and three colleagues have come to one of many Schaefer Islands on a crisp day in mid-February to enlist a military of seals to assist collect local weather knowledge.

Bastien Queste, an oceanographer from the College of East Anglia, Lars Boehme, and Gui Bortolotto (clockwise from heart) put together to affix a sensor to a seal that can measure temperature, salinity and depth because it swims off the coast of West Antarctica.

Carolyn Beeler/The World

As penguins squawk within the background and waddle round on small ridges, Boehme and his crew search for seals to tag with sensors that can observe the layer of heat water that’s considered melting Thwaites.

Scientists consider altering winds are forcing a layer of hotter, denser water known as circumpolar deepwater up from the deep ocean and onto the shallower continental shelf in entrance of West Antarctica. However they don’t know precisely how. Clues from these seals, exhibiting the place that heat water is working its manner towards the continent, how a lot of it there may be, and the way it adjustments seasonally, are key to understanding if, and how briskly, West Antarctica’s glaciers would possibly collapse.

“We report temperature, salinity and depth each time a seal dives, and when the seal comes again to the floor, the information is transmitted in actual time again to a floor station again house,” stated Boehme, an ecologist and oceanographer on the College of St. Andrews in Scotland, who has been doing this work for 15 years.

The information transmitted through satellite tv for pc from the Amundsen Sea is accessible to scientists all over the world nearly immediately and may educate them extra about seal habits.

It additionally paints a extra detailed image of how the circumpolar deepwater is flowing towards West Antarctica’s glaciers. The seals can observe this water throughout the Antarctic winter, when people and their scientific devices can’t get there.

“Within the winter, when it’s minus 40 levels [Celsius], pitch darkish, we get knowledge from under the ocean ice and we don’t must be right here, which is sort of good,” Boehme stated.

Lars Boehme walks away from an elephant seal on one in all West Antarctica’s Schaefer Islands.

Carolyn Beeler/The World

Seals as Science Allies

Again on the island, the huge male elephant seal hasn’t completed his annual molt but. If Boehme put a sensor on him, it might fall off together with his previous fur in a matter of days. So Boehme, who’s carrying a neon-orange snowsuit that virtually glows within the intense southern solar, finds one other candidate.

Throughout the seaside, there’s a smooth grey Weddell seal lounging on his abdomen who has completed molting. To catch him, Boehme and a colleague use a big canvas bag with ropes for handles like a web. They stand on both aspect of the animal and attempt to slide it over the seal’s head because it appears to be like up at them and twists and rolls round, showing irritated.

After a couple of minutes of scuttling round on the rocky seaside on this unusual dance, the scientists get the bag over the seal’s head to subdue him, then kneel beside him to inject him with anesthesia.

“They don’t have any land predators right here, this is the reason you are able to do that,” Boehme defined—the seals don’t have any purpose to flee when people method. “In the event you can be within the Arctic, this seal can be within the water after we got here in with the ship.”

Boehme measures the seal and attaches a sensor concerning the dimension of a smartphone to the again of his head with epoxy. It has an antenna that makes it appear like the seal has a unicorn horn.

Lars Boehme attaches a sensor to a Weddell seal on one of many Schaefer Islands off the coast of West Antarctica.

Linda Welzenbach/Rice College

“I wish to suppose that they’re our allies on this,” stated Gui Bortolotto, Boehme’s colleague on the College of St. Andrews and a marine ecologist who additionally skilled as a veterinarian.

Weddell seals dive as much as 2,000 toes deep, into the highest layer of circumpolar deepwater. Elephant seals dive even deeper, into the trenches within the seafloor that funnel dense heat water towards West Antarctica’s ice cabinets.

This layer of heat water has lengthy existed within the deep ocean. However now, it’s being pushed up onto the continental shelf and towards West Antarctica. Scientists consider altering winds are forcing the water towards the area’s ice cabinets, and the adjustments could also be linked to a warming ambiance. However they want extra knowledge to know precisely what’s taking place. And a military of data-gathering seals may help.

“Each time I see them and take into consideration these guys serving to us, I believe how fortunate we’re that [their biology] suits completely to fill the gaps that we want of knowledge,” Bortolotto stated, standing on the frigid island.

Transponders monitoring temperature, salinity and depth as seals dive keep on the animals for a few yr. They fall off when seals shed their fur throughout their annual molt.

Linda Welzenbach/Rice College

About half an hour after the method began, the seal opens his eyes and begins to get up. Boehme strikes to take a seat on the ice-covered shore, between the seal and the water, to ensure the animal doesn’t slide off the seaside and swim away earlier than the anesthesia has absolutely worn off.

Seals as a Gateway to Antarctica

Seals introduced a number of the first individuals to the Antarctic 200 years in the past, however for a really totally different purpose. They had been sealers armed with golf equipment, in the hunt for Southern fur seals hunted for his or her silky pelts. Amongst them was Nathaniel B. Palmer, who was in his early 20s when his crew grew to become the primary Individuals to identify the Antarctic Peninsula. (The icebreaker that carried Boehme and Bortolotto and roughly two dozen different scientists to Thwaites is known as after Palmer.)

By the early 1800s, sealers like Palmer had worn out total colonies of Southern fur seals on islands farther north, so “yearly that sealers went out, they had been having to go additional and additional south within the south Atlantic to seek out the seal breeding grounds,” stated Beth Moore, curator on the Nathaniel B. Palmer Home in Stonington, Connecticut.

On one in all these missions in 1820, Palmer grew to become one of many first individuals see Antarctica and one in all a handful of individuals with competing claims on discovering it. He was on the South Shetland Islands scouting for seals in November of that yr when he noticed a part of the Antarctic Peninsula.

“He principally says, ‘I am taking a look at one thing, it isn’t an iceberg, it is a landmass and it isn’t on my charts or maps so I will write down the place it is positioned,’” Moore stated. “‘However I’m going to do what I used to be despatched to do, which is search for seals.’”

After he famous it down in his logbook, creating what Moore stated is the oldest extant report of a sighting of the continent, he went proper again to scouting for seals.
Southern fur seals had been hunted to close extinction on islands round Antarctica inside a long time, and even years, of their discovery by sealers. At their main breeding floor on South Georgia Island, they had been thought-about commercially extinct by the early 1900s. It took a long time for the inhabitants to rebound, however they now quantity within the hundreds of thousands there.

Filling ‘Gaps in Time and House’

As we speak, Antarctica’s seals are protected below an worldwide treaty. Boehme has to get permits and undergo moral opinions to tag Weddell and elephant seals.

“I attempt to deal with them like people,” Boehme stated from again on the icebreaker. “They’ve their very own lives, they’ve households, so it’s a large moral query.”

Scientists have been utilizing these sorts of sensors on marine mammals for about 20 years, and Boehme estimates there are 60-80 animals within the Southern Ocean at the moment carrying them.

On the two-month expedition aboard the Palmer, Boehme connected sensors to 11 Weddell seals and one elephant seal throughout six days within the subject, together with sooner or later out on thick items of floating sea ice. He might observe their actions and the information they had been sending again in near-real-time from the ship on the journey house, when it reached far sufficient north to regain web entry.

To date, these seals have collected greater than 3,000 temperature and salinity profiles throughout roughly 45,000 dives, together with dives which have tracked circumpolar deepwater. The seals are telling scientists extra about how they behave in a altering underwater surroundings and gathered knowledge in an ice-choked bay the Palmer couldn’t break into whereas it was within the Amundsen Sea. “[The seals] are filling within the gaps in time and house,” Boehme stated.

Carolyn Beeler/The World

The seals will swim below sea ice by the Antarctic winter, accumulating knowledge till their sensors fall off throughout their subsequent molt.

Boehme can’t say way more what the seals have discovered to this point, consistent with the tutorial apply of not discussing outcomes earlier than they’re printed in a peer-reviewed journal. Seals tagged close by in 2014 recorded new pathways the place circumpolar deepwater was making its manner onto the continental shelf. Additionally they revealed the layer of heat water is thicker throughout the Antarctic winter than in the summertime in some locations.

Boehme hopes the extra exact sea stage rise predictions that can come out of this knowledge and complementary work throughout a five-year analysis collaboration on Thwaites Glacier will put together us higher for our altering future. And assist us perceive the way it would possibly impression the seals.

“Understanding the melting, the potential sea stage rise, actually helps us to higher shield ourselves and all ecosystems,” Boehme stated. Local weather change knowledge, he stated, “is a suggestion from the scientists to say, let’s do one thing and make it, possibly not even a greater world anymore, however a world that we are able to address.”

Lars Boehme’s seal work was executed below allow quantity FCO UK No. 29/2018.

This story was printed with PRI’s The World, the award-winning public radio present and podcast on international points, information and insights from BBC, WGBH, PRI, and PRX.

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