Counting whales amidst unpredictable ice: a challenging task

Published on
March 27, 2014

Scientists from various countries are working together to count Antarctic minke whales. As it turns out, unexpectedly large numbers of these whales are living amidst and under the Antarctic ice, making one of the main habitats of these whales very vulnerable to climate change. This is one of the findings from research recently published in Nature's Scientific Reports.

Foto: Antarctic minke whales (Balaenoptera bonaerensis) amidst the ice

Counting from an icebreaker and a helicopter

It is difficult to count the number of animals in the population because Antarctic minke whales often live amidst and under the Antarctic sea ice, on routes that unnavigable for traditional ships. The research was carried out along the edge of the Antarctic sea ice in the Weddell Sea from the icebreaker Polarstern with aerial support from a helicopter.

Policy on whales and their habitat

Estimations of the numbers of Antarctic minke whales are used by the International Whaling Commission to devise policy, and to analyse the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems in the Antarctic. The counts show that there are large numbers of these whales living amidst and under the sea ice.

Unpredictable Antarctic sea ice

The Antarctic summer sea ice changes rapidly: the area covered by ice changes every year, the ice moves around and the duration of the season changes. These trends, along with the changing condition of the ice itself, affect the habitat of the Antarctic minke whales. The strong link between whales and the dynamic, unpredictable sea ice mean that further studies need to be carried out to monitor the development of the population of Antarctic minke whales and to predict how the ecosystem will react to further climate change.