There are 3,000 polar bears living in Svalbard, and every last one of them wants to eat your babies. If you're a ringed seal, that is. And thanks to global warming, there’s nothing the seals can do to stop them.

Svalbard is a sparsely populated Norwegian archipelago buried deep in the Arctic. It is a treeless, inhospitable place where the glaciers (1,100 of them) outnumber the women (924). These glaciers, however, are home to an explosion of wildlife.

“Svalbard’s glaciers are disappearing at a rate as high as 15km3 per year.”

Exactly 163 of Svalbard’s glaciers have pushed their way into the ocean, where they dump fresh water into the salty depths, churning up a nutrient-filled soup that supports a variety of wildlife. Having been stunned or killed by the melting glacier water, zooplankton rise in great plumes toward the surface, creating a feast for a number of fish and bird species. Ringed seals, in turn, feast on the fish, and polar bears feast on the seals. It’s a stable ecosystem that depends entirely on these tidewater glaciers.   

But Svalbard’s glaciers are disappearing – at a rate as high as 15km3 per year.

“The extraordinarily fast rate at which environmental change is taking place in the Arctic is a cause for concern,” warned scientists from the Norwegian Polar Institute in a recent scientific article looking at glacial ecosystems in Svalbard.

This is bad news for many of Svalbard’s species, but it’s the ringed seals that will be the first domino to topple. For the seals, these tidewater glaciers provide not only food, but also shelter. 

06 02 2014 Ringed Seals
Ringed seals rely on Svalbard's tidewater glaciers to provide not only food, but also shelter. Image: Frank Zehnder, Flickr

Sizable chunks of the tidewater glacier regularly break off into the sea, a process called calving. Occasionally, these freshly calved mini-icebergs get lodged in the sea ice that covers the frozen fjords of Svalbard, forming an icy tower jutting up from an otherwise flat expanse of frozen sea. As the snow blows across the fjords, it accumulates against these ice-towers, forming giant snow drifts. When the pupping season approaches, ringed seals will dig holes in the sea ice just under these snow drifts, and hollow out a shelter in the snow. It is in these dens that they give birth.

Newborn ringed seals are small and vulnerable – weighing just 4 kilograms. Without the protection of a warm den, and if left out in the open, seal pups could succumb to the cold, or be eaten by polar bears, Arctic foxes, or even enterprising glaucous gulls, which have been known to kill and eat newborn seals.

It is an extraordinarily fragile dance of ice and water that results in the perfect conditions for seals to build their dens. But as the glaciers melt, the dance will soon be over. Data from recent years suggests that ice conditions in the Artic are changing, making it harder for seals to locate the snow drifts that are vital to their survival.  

“Ringed seals on the west coast of Svalbard have not had sufficient ice for normal breeding to occur since 2005,” noted scientists. 

The mini-icebergs are no longer being trapped in Svalbard’s sea ice. There is nothing to stop the snow from blowing across the ice and out into the ocean. No drifts means no shelter for the seals. And no shelter means an almost 100% mortality rate for newborn seals.

“Changes in this one keystone predator have the potential to produce cascading effects through this arctic marine ecosystem,” scientists have warned

If the ringed seals disappear, the polar bears will surely follow. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

Top header image: vetlesk, Flickr