For our Geo Quiz today we're headed to a noisy neighborhood up north with The World's Jeb Sharp.
"I'm watching a mother and a newborn just touching noses now and I think they're the ones we've been listening to call each other now they've both turned and the mother is leading the baby away from me.ï¿½
What are those creatures? And where are they?
A few clues -- it's early March. They're in eastern Canada. They're hauled out on the pack ice, which is drifting in a large body of salt water.
Jeb Sharp recordingJeb Sharp recording
We're looking for the name of that body of water, which freezes over in the winter. You better hurry up... Jeb's got the answer... But she's getting cold out there!
OK, we're looking for a large body of salt water in eastern Canada that freezes over and come late winter, it turns into a giant maternity ward for pinnipeds. Here's the World's Jeb Sharp with the answer:
Hello, bonjour, from the pack of ice in the Gulf of St Lawrence in Quebec just flown by helicopter from the Magdalen Islands the Iles de la Madeleine, known as the Maggies, I'm surrounded by harp seals with their characterestic harp-shaped or wishbone-shaped dark mark on their back their dark heads and their white coat pups the pups are strewn about the ice resting nursing struggling to learn how to move.
We're right in the thick of pupping and the seals are in an intensive period of lactation or nursing of transferring this incredibly rich milk that they make from mother to pup.
ï¿½The overall thing is to transfer as much energy from the female to the pup and then get out of here.ï¿½
That's Mike Hammill, research scientist with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Mike HamillMike Hamill
ï¿½While they're on the ice they're vulnerable to predators and they're less comfortable they're less mobile they aren't feeding very much they're losing weight so the best idea for them is to say let's get this pup on its way and then we'll get back into the water.ï¿½
The pups grow rapidly while they guzzle their mother's milk, growing from little thin whitecoats into great fat ones in a couple of weeks. Of course it's these fluffy white coats that are the reason many of us have heard of the harp seal in the first place.
For years they were the poster children for the campaign to stop the Canadian seal hunt. These days the hunting of white coats is outlawed but the hunt of older animals continues. And the hunt is still bitterly contested.
Part of Mike Hammill's job is to keep tabs on the size and health of the seal population so he can advise the Canadian government on how many animals hunters should be allowed to take each year. Lately he's had a new factor to put into the equation--the changing ice conditions associated with global warming.
ï¿½The general ice cover trend at least the variability that we've seen over the last decade is starting to be of some concern and in our predictions now on average we're saying that we're going to increase mortality of the young by 10 percent that's before hunting even starts.ï¿½
That's because harp seals depend on stable pack ice for these crucial weeks when each year's pups are born and fattened up. If it's too warm, the ice breaks up early, and the pups are in danger of being swept away before they're old enough to survive in the ocean. That's what happened in 2007. Scientists actually lost track of the pups.
ï¿½Ice conditions were extremely poor. Ice that they saw on a particular day they would go back a day later and that ice had been all destroyed and there were no animals left on the ice so that suggests that in 2007 there was very high mortality.ï¿½
Hammill wonders if he'll see any animals from that birth year turning up to breed in years to come. Despite that apparent catastrophe, Hammill's pretty optimistic that harp seals can adapt if their ice shrinks or disappears. He says females might start pupping further north or crowding together on smaller pieces of pack ice. He says it's possible the herd down here in the Gulf of St. Lawrence might disappear but the species as a whole could continue to thrive. But the unknowns are sobering. Hammill says climate change could turn out to be like the current financial crisis.
ï¿½We see things are going along fine, fine, fine, fine, but what we've realized very quickly when things change in a very negative way they can occur very quickly and where it stops we just don't know so we didn't have any backup systems in place to take care of a rainy day.ï¿½
On this sunny day in late winter it's easy to feel hopeful though. For now, harp seals are abundant. The ice is dotted with them as far as the eye can see.
In front of me there's a female in the water, bobbing up and down in a breathing hole. She slips beneath the surface only to pop up again in a different hole a short distance away.
Carefree as she seems, there's nothing certain about her future in a world of warming temperatures and perhaps less ice. That uncertainty should keep Mike Hammill and his colleagues busy for a long time to come.
For The World, I'm Jeb Sharp from the pack ice off the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St Lawrence, Canada.