Canadian Geographic
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The North from Space


Satellite technology is enabling scientists to develop a more accurate picture of the migration patterns of Arctic marine animals. Satellite data can provide valuable information on ocean conditions, ice formation and coverage, land environments and the atmosphere. In the coming decades, as climate change continues to alter the Arctic environment, population growth, resource development and shipping are expected to impact the northern regions. Then, more than ever, researchers will rely on satellites to monitor this fragile ecosystem.

An international team of scientists headed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada is currently using satellites to track the movements of the narwhal. Known as the “sea unicorn,” for the male’s long, ivory tusk-like tooth, the narwhal is an ice-dependent species. Ice provides a food base for the narwhal as well as protection from predation by orcas.

In August 2011, off the coast of northern Baffin Island, scientists fitted seven narwhals with Global Positioning System (GPS) tags. These tags send signals to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite, which relays data to the United States Argos receiving stations in real time.

Thus far, the satellite project has revealed invaluable information about these at-risk animals. For instance, the scientists have learned that the narwhals spend the winter diving to great depths, up to 1.5 kilometres to the bottom of central and southern Baffin Bay and the northern Davis Strait, where they probably feed on Greenland halibut, their main energy source. With the anticipated increase in industrial shipping and hydrocarbon exploration in the Arctic, it is imperative that due consideration be given to an area that’s inhabited by these acoustically sensitive and pollution-sensitive animals for eight months of the year.

By tracking the narwhals’ migration routes to inlets farther north of Baffin Island, where the animals calve, researchers can identify which Inuit communities are on their path and which communities hunt them. Using this information, the government can better determine quotas to ensure the narwhals’ sustainability.


This video discusses how narwhals are captured, fitted for transmitters and released in order to track their movements and populations.


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Quiz :

In which year was the first map of Arcitc sea-ice thickness unveiled?