Covid-19 has left few stones unturned—and scientists are noticing that humans aren’t the only creatures suffering from major pandemics. With the evident changes in our world, as well as the increased impacts of climate change, marine mammals and their wellbeing are a growing concern.
In fact, a recent study found a link between climate change and the death of marine mammals through infectious diseases. In 2002, there were more than 30,000 seals that died of phocine distemper virus. And now, researchers predict similar consequences may happen again and become worse in the future with rising global temperatures.
The immuno-consequences on marine mammals
Not-so-fun fact: the study found 61% of mass mortality events in marine life are linked to climate change.
For example, as temperature increases, sea ice melts at faster rates. Pinnipeds — commonly known as seals — need sea ice to perform life essentials such as birth, rest, mating, and protection. Thus, sea ice melting forces pinnipeds to group together in high densities, which encourages pathogens to transmit.
In addition, a rise in global temperatures causes chemical compositions to shift, which directly affects marine animals. To clarify, when large ice caps melt, the excess water “freshens” the oceans, diluting any pre-existing chemical balances.
Fish, mollusks, and crustaceans are especially sensitive to these changes, which greatly reduces the amount of prey in the ecosystem. Therefore, many marine mammals will begin to suffer from nutritional deficiencies, weakening their immunity to new diseases.
And marine viruses aren’t some distant issue
The study has found 36% of the marine mammal species in the report were vulnerable to extinction. But we must preserve marine mammals: they are a huge part of agriculture and our economy, supporting over 660 to 880 million people. Further, marine animals such as whales and seals create a “biological pump” that help counteract global warming.
Not only is the extinction of marine mammals a problem but also the potential spread of diseases to humans. With the recent Covid-19 pandemic caused by zoonotic diseases, melting ice caps may pose many more future zoonotic diseases we have not even heard of. The loss of sea ice could lead to new animal movement and an introduction to diseases to land and other animals.
But this is preventable. “By managing pollution, terrestrial run‐off and habitat loss, exposure to pathogens likely to cause infectious disease outbreaks may be reduced” the report suggests.
Rising sea temperatures, an imbalanced food-chain, only scratches at the oceanic crisis’s surface. In order to preserve marine mammals and our world’s ecosystem, we must do more to combat climate change.
Jalen Xing is a Writer at theRising and the co-founder of Students For Hospitals. You can pitch him stories at jalen.xing [at] gmail [dot] com.