Climate change could be to blame for spikes in a deadly virus among otters, seals and sea lions around the Arctic, a new study has suggested.
Phocine distemper virus (PDV) has been common in the northern Atlantic ocean for decades but as a result of melting Arctic sea ice it has now appeared among marine mammals in the northern Pacific ocean too.
When the virus started to spread across species of Otters, Seals and Sea Lions in the northern Pacific Oceans, scientists thought melting ice could be the culprit.
The 15-year study which tracked the animals via satellite found PDV, which can kill some species, was most common in years when so much Arctic ice melted it became possible for mammals to move freely from the Atlantic to Pacific regions.
Steadily rising global temperatures due to climate change have meant more and more sea ice is melting around the Arctic, opening up sea lanes which for thousands of years have been impassable.
Between 1979 and 2018, Arctic sea ice declined on average 12.8 per cent each decade, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
“These sea ice changes in September are likely unprecedented for at least 1,000 years,” the IPCC said in a report published in September.
Researchers studied 15 years of data that tracked 2,500 marine mammals in a variety of locations via satellite to find if upticks in PDV matched with declines in sea ice. They also studied measurements of Arctic sea ice over the same time period and examined blood and nasal swab samples from 165 dead ice-associated animals.
Testing showed about 30 per cent of Stellar Sea Lions in the northern Pacific Ocean were infected with the disease, which had previously been mostly confined to Atlantic populations.
Researchers concluded that melting Arctic sea ice caused by human-driven climate change paved the way for PDV to spread to new regions and infect new populations of marine mammals, especially along the northern Russian coast and along the coast of northern Canada.
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