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13 September 2016

Is the Decline in Sea Ice Endangering the Ivory Gull?

In 2015, satellite data revealed that the previous year’s yield of sea ice during the winter re-freeze was the lowest since records began, in 1979. The decline in sea ice is an on-going concern for humans and animals alike, and the effects are only getting more prominent with time. Wild fires have been raging in the Arctic tundra, Inuit communities have been forced from their homes, and now evidence suggests that the ivory gull is in decline.

The already rare, somewhat enigmatic bird is known to be reliant on sea ice for hunting and nesting, and observations in the Canadian High Arctic have shown a drop in their numbers, compared to previous trend data. Given how elusive these birds can be (there are less than 14,000,000 breeding pairs worldwide), not a great deal of population trend data previously existed, but even reports around 10 years ago showed an 80% decline in nests, compared the 1980s.

While such a heavy decline may not be a direct result of sea ice, the correlation between more recent trends and the satellite data is hard to ignore. Ivory gulls, like other gulls, are opportunists, relying on whatever food they can turn up. That could be fish, crustaceans, or carrion left over by polar bears. In all these cases, sea ice is vital, as the surrounding water has a greater amount of algae, and obviously polar bears rely on sea ice to find their prey.

Although data on ivory gulls is slim, it goes without saying that they are a vital part of the Arctic eco-system. They scavenge meat which would otherwise rot, keep the fish populations in check and provide prey for other, larger seabirds. If they vanish, the results could be disastrous.

We’re already seeing this with the polar bear, as the lack of ice has resulted in far shorter hunting seasons, making it far more difficult for them to raise their young. The need to swim further distances between ice sheets has also meant that far more bears are drowning at sea.

Some evidence has suggested that polar bears are moving inland, altering their diets and adapting to the milder climate. That might sound encouraging, but could well have a dangerous effect on the animals they prey on, not to mention the increased risk of bears wandering into populated areas, or attacking extremely unlucky hikers.

Ivory gulls aren’t as well equipped to move inland, nor are any of the other seabirds which use the ice. If more species start to dwindle, it could lead to an imbalance in the entire Arctic eco-system. While these things cannot be entirely blamed on climate change, it is certainly a contributing factor. Some experts have suggested that the low levels of ice are more the result of previously undocumented seasonal changes, but the fact remains that if global warming continues to rise, we simply don’t know what will happen to the Arctic, or what it will mean for the rest of the planet.  

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.