Then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.
And so concludes Moby-Dick. Perhaps when he wrote those lines more than a century and a half ago, Herman Melville was implying that the sea would remain the same despite mankind’s hubris in attempting to conquer it.
If only that were true. Whether by overfishing, pollution, melting sea ice, or acidification, humans have changed the ocean more than we ever thought possible during Melville’s time. Luckily, humans can change, too.
Let me introduce you to John Morrison, a New Englander on a mission to save whales in the Arctic. For the past 15 years as a conservation planner for the World Wildlife Fund, he’s been studying how climate change is affecting some of the planet’s northernmost seas and the species that rely on them. But recently, a genealogy side project of his has unearthed an interesting, if troubling, tidbit from his family tree: Morrison’s great-great-great-grandfather, Lewis Herendeen, and Lewis’s brothers, Ned and Alonzo, were prominent Arctic whalers. What’s more, these men captained ships in the Beaufort, Chukchi, and Bering Seas—the very same waters their descendant now works to protect.
Morrison finds the coincidence fascinating. “The fact that here they were decimating bowhead whales, hunting seals and walrus, really laying those populations low without giving it a second thought…” he says, trailing off. “Now I’m working in the same area trying to reverse some of that damage.”
As Morrison has been digging into his family’s past, climate change has been coaxing the ocean to cough up its own secrets. Last fall, thanks to warmer weather and reduced sea ice cover, archaeologists were able to discover the remains of two 19th-century whaling ships. The scientists believe the vessels were abandoned during the Whaling Disaster of 1871, when a sudden surge of sea ice in August entombed 33 ships. The captain of one of those ill-fated whalers, the Mary, was Morrison’s great-times-three Uncle Ned.
While all of the seamen involved in the disaster escaped with their lives, the convoy had to jettison its haul of whale oil and baleen and return home empty-handed. In today’s money, that would be like throwing $33 million overboard. Some argue that this was the beginning of the end of the commercial whaling industry in America, which had already been struggling to compete with a newfangled energy source: petroleum. (If you’re interested in the economics of whaling, I can’t recommend this United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries report enough. Literature bonus: It’s written by a guy named Starbuck.)
Now, almost 150 years later, oil is replacing harpoons as one of the biggest threats to Arctic whales. And if you look at where the 1871 disaster took place on a present-day map, you’ll notice that oil and gas leases now pockmark that very same stretch of sea. While companies such as Shell have recently signaled a retreat from the Arctic, the Obama administration recently announced plans to open up big, new leases in 2022.
“If there were a big spill here or some sort of an accident, the consequences for migrating whales would be just catastrophic,” says Morrison. Bowhead whales, which can grow to 60 feet in length, use these waters as a migratory corridor—which is, of course, why his ancestors were drawn there in the first place.
Now let’s get back to that other huge consequence of the oil industry: climate change. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and that temperature shift could alter the flow of nutrients from the deep ocean to the surface. But will this damage Arctic habitats or just reshape them?
To find out, Morrison and WWF have been using a spatial analysis tool called RACER (short for Rapid Assessment of Circum-Arctic Ecosystem Resilience). RACER identifies potential high-biodiversity areas and then quantifies the factors that may play into their ecological success. These could be anything from underwater topography and temperature to water currents, ice cover, and proximity to the mouths of rivers. Morrison and company then look at how climate change might affect each of those variables and try to predict what a certain biodiversity hot spot might look like in the next 50 to 100 years.
So far the researchers have some good news and some not-so-good news (especially for landlubbing species). First, according to RACER data, it doesn’t seem that climate change will cause any kind of colossal ecosystem collapse in areas of high biodiversity—and some of these places may actually get a bio-boost. As sea ice recedes earlier and faster each year, the ocean’s surface will become more exposed to winds that churn up the water below, creating more intense upwellings of nutrients. While that would be welcome news for whales and other creatures below the waves, the loss of sea ice will be terrible for polar bears, seals, walrus, and other animals that depend on it for survival.
If we can understand just how the sea will react to a changing climate, says Morrison, we can adapt our conservation plans to that new normal. For instance, if RACER points toward a certain area as being really crucial for biodiversity in the next century—say, Barrow Canyon, just north of Alaska—then ramping up conservation efforts there now may help make the best out of a bad situation. Doing so could mean banning new oil and gas leases or closing the area to another potential whale killer, ship traffic, which experts say will increase as the sea ice shrinks.
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After a group of Native Alaskans—who were legally subsistence hunting—killed a bowhead off the coast in 2007, they found an antique harpoon head embedded in the animal’s body. Experts say the harpoon was likely manufactured in New Bedford, Massachusetts, home to Morrison’s ancestors, the Herendeens of the High Seas. But even more interesting is that the patent on this harpoon (which was designed to explode on contact) dates back to 1879 and the technology was only used over the following decade or so, putting the whale at between 115 and 130 years of age. Other bowheads, scientists have estimated, reached 135, 172, and 211 years before meeting their fate at the end of a harpoon. This would make them the oldest living mammals on earth.
If bowhead whales can live past the two-century mark, there’s a chance that some of the very same animals the Herendeens chased across the Arctic are still plumbing the depths that their great-great-great-grandson and nephew has dedicated his life to protecting. In the whale’s lifetime, the seas did change. But so did people—and so, again, can their fuel source.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.