Using the Beluga Cam for Climate Research
Every year, the Hudson Bay, located northeast of Manitoba, Canada, freezes over, acting as an important route for polar bears to use and find food. The sea ice is an important ecosystem in the Arctic. The algae grow within the sea ice and form the base of the food chain. The algae will feed on the tiny organisms that inhabit these waters. Arctic cod will feed on the organisms, seals will eat the Arctic cold, and polar bears will prey on seals.
The sea ice in Hudson Bay typically starts forming in October and will last until June. In response to climate change and warming temperatures, we are seeing later ice-forming times and earlier ice-melting periods, which can impact the amount of times a polar bear has to hunt.
Another animal that inhabits Hudson Bay and relies on sea ice is the Belgua. Belugas rely on the sea ice for protection from predators and for feeding. Unlike many other whales, belugas lack a dorsal fin, allowing them to live and feed in areas with Arctic sea ice. They can therefore swim close to the sea ice and find breathing holes without getting blocked by ice chunks.
The lack of a dorsal fin in beluga whales is thought to have evolved as an adaptation to their environment. Belugas live in the Arctic, where the water is cold and often icy. A dorsal fin would make it more difficult for belugas to swim through the water and maneuver in ice, but without a dorsal fin, belugas are able to swim more efficiently and quietly. This is also important for hunting, as it allows them to sneak up on their prey without being detected. The lack of a dorsal fin also makes belugas less likely to become entangled in fishing nets.
When the ice melts in the summer, over 57,000 belugas will migrate to the warm waters of Hudson Bay’s Churchill River estuary to feed, molt and give birth to their young. The Churchill River is safe because it is shallow and protects them from orca predators, which cannot swim in shallow waters. As the climate in Hudson Bay continues to shift, there have been more sightings of orcas in the Churchill region during the summer. When the temperatures get colder, the belugas will travel back north for the winter to where sea ice has formed.
Polar Bears International, a non-profit research, conservation and education program, has teamed up with Explore.org and the Assiniboine Park Conservancy to allow people from across the globe to see live beluga cam footage of the belugas from their Beluga Boat. The Beluga Cam is part of their goal to inspire people to care about the Arctic ecosystem.
Besides watching these animals swim around the Churchill River on the Beluga Cam, beluga cam viewers can participate in a citizen science project called Beluga Bits, which gives them the opportunity to actively participate in the classification and identification of belugas. Since the project was launched in 2016, the project has had nearly 22,000 registered participants who’ve contributed nearly 5 million photo classifications. The beluga cam data will help monitor the population of Belugas to detect threats and implement management actions. Western Hudson Bay is also being evaluated as a possible National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA), and information about the ecosystem’s species is vital to receiving this designation.
An NMCA is a protected area of ocean or sea that is managed to conserve marine life and its habitat. NMCAs are designated by the Government of Canada and are part of the National Marine Conservation Areas System. The Western Hudson Bay ecosystem is home to a diverse range of species, including beluga whales, seals, walruses, polar bears, and many fish species. The area is also important for migratory birds.
Information about the ecosystem’s species is important for NMCA designation because it helps to assess the area’s ecological significance. This information is also used to develop management plans for the NMCA. The Government of Canada is currently conducting a study to assess the potential of Western Hudson Bay as an NMCA. The study will consider a number of factors, including the area’s ecological significance, its economic and social importance, and the potential for sustainable use.
The study is expected to be completed in this year. If Western Hudson Bay is designated as an NMCA, it will be the first NMCA in the Canadian Arctic.
This year, in addition to the beluga cam, the Beluga Bits project launched its Beluga Bits in the Classroom from the Assiniboine Park Zoo, a free program for understanding why citizen science is important and how to use the Beluga Cam as a teaching tool.
The Hudson Bay is changing, and it is important that organizations like Polar Bear International bring awareness to these issues and get people involved with projects like the Beluga Cam and Beluga Bits. Together we can all be part of the solution to reducing warming and protecting the animals that depend on the sea ice.