luni, 1 septembrie 2008

Whale Playground Sheds Light on Melting Arctic

Beluga Whale
Bellwether Species
- A young whale pokes its melon-shaped head into the cool morning air near this remote island, a sign its herd is thriving despite mounting threats in Russia's melting Arctic.

Cameras and microphones capture the whale's every move as scientists use the species' only shore-side breeding ground to see how they are coping as fleets of oil tankers replace melting ice in their traditional feeding grounds.

"Belugas are a bellwether species...what happens to them reflects the effects of pollution and global warming on the whole ecosystem," said Vsevolod Belkovich, a professor at the Russian Academy of Science who is leading the study.

Scientists have recorded a small drop in the whale population that they attribute in part to human activity in Arctic regions. "As global warming continues, the threats are going to grow dramatically," Belkovich said.

Since monitoring began scores of whales have traveled hundreds of miles each year to this White Sea sandbank to mate, frolic and train their young.

Distinctive markings on the whales' backs allow the researchers to track the population from year to year, monitoring their health, longevity and interactions with rival herds.

"It's the only place in the world they come so close to the shore," said Vladimir Baranov, a senior researcher with Moscow's Institute of Oceanology, who films the Belugas close up underwater in their natural setting.

"They can play here because there is no danger," said Olga Kirilova, a fellow researcher. "But in the winter they go north and face intensive shipping, the tankers and their pollution."

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