Global warming is a complex phenomenon with profound and widespread ecological implications. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the effects of global warming on seals. Owing to their biological makeup, seals are particularly vulnerable to the changing climate; they are therefore extremely sensitive to temperature changes and consequently experience a range of difficulties due to global warming.
Arguably the most pressing consequence of global warming with regard to seals is the fact that higher temperatures cause rapid melting of glacial ice, on which they depend for breeding. As sea ice melts, their resources become increasingly scarce and their living habitats become less and less hospitable. In the Bering Sea, for example, the ice has gotten so thin that it can no longer support the seals’ reproductive needs, leading to a drastic drop in the seal population.
In addition to issues of habitat, rising sea levels caused by climate change makes it difficult for seals to find food. Not only have researchers noticed that melting glacial ice disrupts food webs and lowers biodiversity, further complicating this issue, but photic zones – regions of the sea floor illuminated by sunlight – have also been pushed some 10 meters below the surface. This shift affects significant distribution of phytoplankton, organisms upon which seals feed, and the subsequent inability to support them.
Another worrisome consequence of global warming is the high levels of stress induced in seals. As they are cold-blooded animals, rising temperatures impact them directly as they must continually regulate their body temperature. This, in turn, puts heavy stress on them as they must constantly burn calories to adjust their temperature, which often results in a decrease of reproductive success. In a 2019 study, scientists observed a strange occurrence: polar seals exhibiting behaviors typically displayed during the mating season in both winter and fall and observing that this change in behavior could relate to an increase in stress.
While raising awareness of the catastrophic effects of global warming is important, action must be taken if we are to Save the Seals. Governments and individuals alike should implement preventive steps to negate the impacts of climate change. These steps ought to be taken as soon as possible – as sea temperatures continue to rise, seals must be given an alternative to the diminishing glacial ice. Furthermore, individuals should err on the side of caution when it comes to the use of plastics, which contribute to the rise of sea levels and further compromise the seal’s ability to hunt for food. By pledging to protect these creatures and their habitats, we can give them a fighting chance.