Deputy Director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission Cheryl Rosa delivered a lecture on the emerging challenges facing Arctic wildlife. The lecture, held on Wednesday, Oct. 28, focused heavily on the particular vulnerabilities of the Arctic ecosystem, which indicate global trends of ocean acidification and which climate change would affect greatly. Rosa also discussed the issues from a local lens, focusing on the indigenous peoples of the North Slope Borough, a spare and sparse region of far northern Alaska. The lecture was sponsored by Wesleyan Animal Studies, the Ethics in Society Program, and the College of the Environment. Rosa was introduced by Chair of the Philosophy Department Lori Gruen and Professor of Environmental Studies William Griffin.
Rosa, who has doctorates in both veterinary medicine and biology, began her talk by discussing her changing roles through the years, from frequent field research in the North Slope to a more administrative role in several national and international bodies.
“…I’m behind a desk more these days, I’m kind of in an admin position, but I’m still doing some research,” Rosa said. “I work as a delegate, the U.S. delegate, to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission, and…I chair a group that looks at disease specification and I’m on several other subgroups, including one that looks at aboriginal subsistence whaling to whale killing methods to pollution, other environmental concerns.”
Rosa went on to discuss several tensions arising in the Arctic, ranging from environmental to political, providing an overview of changes in the zone defined here as including the Bering Sea due to the high codependence the two bodies of water share. The ocean is bordered by Russia, the U.S., Canada, Denmark, and Norway, and the discovery of large oil and gas reserves has caused rising tension in the formerly quiet region. However, the tensions are not as severe as media reports make them out to be.
“The Arctic is in the news pretty much constantly these days; between political issues, oil and gas, and climate change, there’s just an awful lot that’s being said, some of which is correct, some of which is not particularly correct,” Rosa said. “There’s always the media’s leaning to trying to give something a sensational title, and a lot of what comes out of the media is somewhat produced by the media, unfortunately, and this whole idea of there being a cold war with these tensions—pretty much, the Arctic has been relatively low tensions, and we hope it stays that way.”
Rosa also noted another environmental effect of climate change in the Arctic: the growth of bowhead whale populations due to large, early algae blooms that are the result of melting ice, while ice-dependent species like ice seals and polar bears suffered the threat of population decline.
“The Arctic has a rapidly changing environment…we’ve got temperatures that are warming at twice the global rate, we’ve got declining sea ice, both in extent and the amount of multi-year ice, we’ve got ecosystems that are changing, and there are winners and losers,” Rosa said. “When you think about animals that are in the Arctic, especially marine-associated wildlife, they can be considered ice-obligate or ice-associated, and the ice-obligate absolutely need ice to do their thing, whether they’re breeding, they’re pupping…ice associated, they like having ice there, but they’re not going to be as impacted if ice goes away.”
Rosa also discussed the amplified impact of ocean acidification on Arctic wildlife, which has a very simple food web. Due to its simplicity, the ecosystem is particularly vulnerable to the decline of even just a few bottom-level species.
“In terms of the Arctic marine food web, when you look at our food web compared to lower latitudes, it’s extremely simple,” Rosa said. “That makes it more vulnerable to ocean acidification. And if you have…a sea butterfly, which is one of those very small zooplankton that forms the basis for fish and things, if these guys can’t form their shells and begin to die, it is not a good situation for the food chain in general.”
Rosa later showed a film clip of indigenous whale butchery, noting that the politics of aboriginal subsistence whaling were often tense, due to the importance of whale in local diets and governmental protection of endangered species. She would go on to discuss local politics with regards to drilling and marine protection, noting that the remoteness of the North Slope made emergency response difficult and off-shore drilling very risky. She ended her lecture discussing how to help prevent further damage to the Arctic marine food web, saying scientists needed a way to “un-confound” people and drive home the dangers of climate change, which include ecosystem destruction and more severe storms due to reduced ice levels.
Spencer Brown ’18 was in attendance, and commented on the accessibility of the lecture.
“I’m not an environmental science major, I’ve never taken a class in it or biology…I just enjoyed getting more scientific knowledge, being someone who’s not from that background,” Brown said.
Rebecca Winkler ’16 was also in attendance, and described her thoughts on the lecture.
“I thought it was really interesting,” Winkler said. “I’ve taken a couple of classes with Professor Gruen, who got the speaker here, so I’m very interested in environmental issues as well as the animal issues related to it, so it was really interesting to hear a different perspective on the indigenous hunting of whales and to learn about that process and where whales fit into the culture and different aspects of that.”