The effects of climate change are projected to be disproportionately pronounced in polar regions, where changes in the density and extent of sea ice will have pronounced effects on the spatio-temporal dynamics of the marine planktonic ecosystem. The endangered bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) is one of the largest animals in the Arctic, yet they feed on some of the smallest Arctic animals, zooplankton. Changes the abundance and distribution of zooplankton due to changes in sea ice would have direct effects on bowhead whales. In addition, loss of Arctic sea ice also has the potential to increase negative anthropogenic interactions, as areas become more accessible to vessels and oil exploration. The proposed work brings together a multidisciplinary team with expertise in biogeochemistry and climate modeling of the Arctic, baleen whale distribution modeling, bowhead whale biology and habitat, and the effects of climate change on Arctic marine mammal biodiversity and conservation. Working together, our objective is to improve understanding of how the Arctic planktonic ecosystem affects the regional distribution of bowhead whales and to develop forecasts of long-term changes in their distribution under different Arctic climate change scenarios. Our proposed work builds upon a forecasting system developed for a similar baleen whale species, the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) (Pendleton 2010, Pendleton et. al. 2009, Pershing et al. 2009, Pershing et al. 2009). This system, developed with funding from the NASA Applied Sciences program, generated weekly predictions, at regional and local spatial scales, of right whale habitat quality. Environmental niche models (ENMs) integrated satellite-derived SST and chlorophyll, modeled zooplankton abundance, bathymetry, and aerial and acoustic detections of whales to produce habitat maps with good predictive accuracy (Pendleton et. al. 2009). The ENMs were used to evaluate shipping lanes in order to reduce whale-vessel collisions, a primary threat to right whales. We propose to extend this approach for bowhead whales in the Chukchi-Beaufort Seas (CBS) using output from a NASA-supported project: The pan-Arctic Biology/Ice/Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System (BIOMAS), PI: J. Zhang. BIOMAS is a fully coupled 3D biology/sea ice/ocean model with an 11-component lower-trophic model adapted to the Arctic Ocean. BIOMAS generates hourly estimates of three zooplankton components (microzooplankton, mesozooplankton/copepods, and predatory zooplankton), from 1988 to present at a resolution of 4-10km (for the Bering, Chukchi, Beaufort subdomain). Our work will use BIOMAS output to develop habitat suitability models for bowhead whales in the CBS. To do this, ENMs using the BIOMAS output along with satellite time series data on SST, sea-ice and chlorophyll will be trained with a 30+ year time series of bowhead sighting data from aerial surveys in the CBS. Two types of ENM techniques will be used, boosted regression trees and maximum entropy density estimation. Using these ENMs, we will explore changes in bowhead whale habitat suitability in the CBS under different climate change scenarios. BIOMAS will be used to develop forecasts of the spatio-temporal distribution of zooplankton under different IPCC Arctic climate change scenarios. These zooplankton forecasts will then be used to drive the ENMs. This type of scenario study will help us understand the potential changes in bowhead whale distribution and help evaluate strategies for minimizing human-whale interactions as sea-ice extent and whale populations change in the coming decades.

Project PI: Elizabeth Holmes/NOAA Fisheries

National Marine Fisheries Service Northwest Fisheries Science Center 2725 Montlake Blvd. E., Seattle, WA 98112

Phone: (206) 860-354



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Started: Mar 31, 2011

Last Activity: Mar 31, 2011


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