Over a year ago, I wrote about a couple from Germany who sailed the world on their bright red sailboat Freydis for over 40 years. The Freydis spent two winters here in Kodiak before. This summer, they sailed through the Northwest Passage in the Arctic back to the Atlantic. For those of you who have met Erich and Heide during their time in Kodiak: They have successfully made their passage. This winter, the boat will rest in a little harbor called Ilulissat in Greenland, where they arrived last week.
Even then, 46 articles ago, the topic was climate change and how the sailors had firsthand observed the changes in the frequency and ferocity of storms.
Of course, the feat of traversing the Northwest Passage would not even be possible if the oceans, particularly the Arctic, had not warmed up so much.
Now, sailors count on the ice moving out of the way enough for them to get through from one ocean basin to the other in one summer, a trip that took three years when it was first mastered in 1903-1906 by Roald Amundsen.
Not that I mean to downplay the effort and danger of such an adventure, but the Freydis was one of several yachts to pass through this summer, and there have been several others before them, including the yacht Breakpoint from Hamburg that is in St. Paul’s Harbor this winter.
Sailing yachts are not the only ones traveling the newly opened passage between the Pacific and the Atlantic. In 2015, there was a news headline of an unusual sighting of a gray whale in Israel. The headline then read “Whales on the wrong side of the world.” A year later, a different individual gray whale poked its head out of the water off the coast of Spain.
The Israel sighting was the first confirmed gray whale in the Atlantic in 200 years. Officially, gray whales went extinct in the Atlantic around 1800.
The gray whales and several sightings of sea birds in places where they don’t usually show up led a group of scientists to spur a discussion about how climate change and the opening Northwest Passage would change the species distribution in the ocean.
It turns out, however, that gray whales have gone to the Atlantic three times during phases of earth warming and temporary opening of the Northwest passage, most recently 5,000 years ago. As one scientist put it: Animal populations have migrated and shifted their distribution for as long as animal populations have existed. The article also said we shouldn’t try to stop them. I thought that kind of funny: How would we tell a whale, a bird or a fish not to cross the border? Nonetheless, this unauthorized border crossing does bring with it some challenges for us humans who try to manage animal populations.
If a species is protected in one country and swims over to a different one, can it now be considered an invasive species and, because it is not traditionally part of this ecosystem, be exterminated? If predators wander to places where the prey does not know how to avoid them, this can change the dynamics of the local food web. What about the case of the whales? Do they belong in the Atlantic because 200 years ago there was a population of them?
In some species, millions of years ago part of the population went into the Pacific and another part resided in the Atlantic. For millenia, they were separated and have evolved into separate subspecies. However, the difference may not be so great that they cannot interbreed again if the descendants of long-lost cousins now return. This genetic exchange may lead to the extinction of small populations of subspecies. For example, the harbor porpoise is a marine mammal that has multiple subspecies in different parts of the world, which are separate and distinct, yet still genetically similar.
We may not be able to imagine all the possible outcomes of the great experiment that we have initiated by turning up the heat on our home planet. From the looks of it, however, we will get to witness changes that have not ever been seen by people. Animals are adapting to the changing world just as we are. Sometimes that will lead to amazing sights like the first gray whale in Israel in 200 years!