The ringed seal population is under threat due to a lack of Arctic snow

An Arctic ringed seal pup.
An Arctic ringed seal pup ©iStock/Ian Stirling

Although Arctic sea ice is rapidly declining every decade affecting Arctic plants and animals, the reason that the ringed seal population is at risk is due the drastic lack of snow in the region.

The Arctic sea ice is declining at 12.8 percent per decade, with 2012 measuring as the year with the lowest summer ice on record to date. This has several significant implications for Arctic ecosystems, from increased shipping to changing food webs. But the ringed seal population of the region will be most affected by the lack of snow.

The declining population

New research, which appears in theEcological Society of America’s journal Ecological Applications, developed a mathematical model which shows some stark conclusions for the ringed seal populations in the Amundsen Gulf and Prince Albert Sound in Canada.

The lead author of the paper, Jody Reimer, a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, commented: “It was surprising to see just how little snow is forecast to be available for the construction of lairs in the future…When we put the previously published demographic estimates into our model, it predicted dramatic population declines that are inconsistent with the fact that ringed seals still exist in that area.”

The impact of climate change on the ringed seal

The dependence on sea ice and snow by ringed seals means that they are good indicators of how climate affects a species. As the most abundant type of Arctic seal with a wide geographical distribution, the species are exposed to a range of climate change impacts.

The team are still working on research into accurately modelling to assess the factors affecting survival and population viability as the Arctic climate continues to change. Reimer added: “I think this is an example of an instance in which modelling can really help with the interpretation of field data and help inform future field endeavours.”

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