Narwhals Help Scientists Track Global Warming

The mysterious "unicorns of the sea" take the temperature of the Arctic.

Jan. 25, 2008 — -- The narwhal, a mysterious creature that lives in the high Arctic Ocean, is helping scientists gather vital information about global warming.

Peer under the frozen surface of the Arctic Ocean, and if you're lucky you might see the "unicorn of the sea." Narwhals became the source of the unicorn myth when their single, 9-foot tusks showed up on ancient trade routes.

Scientists know very little about the narwhal, but Kristin Laidre, a young biology professor, is collecting vital information from the narwhal about climate change that would otherwise be hard to get.

Laidre's work is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Ocean Exploration.

With some U.S. government scientists saying that the Arctic Ocean may be ice free in the summer months as soon as 2012 or 2013, climatologists are desperate to learn just how fast the deep currents under the Arctic ice are heating up from global warming. But using icebreakers to get enough temperature readings would cost millions.

Laidre had an idea to add thermometers to the computer tags they were already using to track narwhals. The tags transmit data to satellites every time the narwhal surfaces.

"Narwhals are one of the most reliable platforms we can use up here," Laidre said. "They are cheap, they predictably go to the bottom of the ocean, and they always find the surface because they need to breathe! They live in waters that are 98 percent covered with sea ice for six months of the year in complete darkness."

Living Among the Inuit

Narwhals are tricky to find, so Laidre lives and works six months a year with the experts on the region -- the Intuit Indians.

"They are the last kayak hunters in the Arctic. These people are extraordinarily skilled at hunting whales from their kayaks," Laidre said of the Intuit.

The biologist is roughing it and loving it.

"We don't bathe in camp. If you want to take a shower, you can invent a shower out of a bucket and a sponge. I wouldn't recommend it to anybody that likes to lounge around in their bathrobe and bed slippers with a café latte every morning," she said.

"We have one tent we all share where we cook," Laidre continued. "Occasionally one of the guys will catch something. We've eaten all kinds of things from whales to caribou to birds."

The sheer beauty of the place does help make life bearable, but the job can be tricky.

"Attaching a satellite tag to a narwhal isn't the easiest thing to do," Laidre said.

But when they do capture a narwhal in the net and attach the thermometer, the mysterious creatures disappear under the freezing waters again, a process that helps humans find out how fast their beautiful icy world is melting away.