Hypothesis on ice-trapped whales: science-based fiction vs. dishonest science

Speculation on ice-trapped whales: science-based fiction vs. dishonest science

Reposted by Polar Bear Science

Published on December 6, 2020 |

Whales are known to trap ice throughout the Arctic, including the Davis Strait and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. How frequent such phenomena were in the past or how often they might be in the future is the subject of speculation. While speculation is the be-all and end-all of science-based fiction, it is the bane of peer-reviewed science.

I have written two novels that were informed by science in Eastern Canada (2025-2026) in the future (2025-2026): EATEN was shot in Newfoundland, and my latest book UPHEAVAL – see review here – is set in Cape Breton- Island, Nova Scotia. In UPHEAVAL, one of the topics I study is the ice confinement of large whales like North Atlantic right whales. I am speculating in history whether ice-killed whale carcasses might have a powerful pull to lure polar bears of the Davis Strait of Labrador and the Strait of Belle Isle into the Gulf of St. Lawrence – and if so, what impact this shift in the world would have Distribution.

Here I argue that a novel is the place to go for this type of speculation and researchers who offer such guesswork to the public in a way that links a scientifically based guess with evidence-based facts that undermine public confidence in science could.

Both of my novels are set in what few would call "the Arctic", but both have seasonal sea ice and ice-associated marine mammals, including seals, polar bears, belugas and North Atlantic right whales. There is a long history of hunting these animals as well, and recent successes in conservation efforts aimed at their recovery have had some unintended consequences. For example, after decades of overhunting in Newfoundland and Labrador, the number of seals has increased dramatically over the past 30 years, which has helped the polar bear numbers in Davis Strait recover from centuries of overhunting because seals are a critical one Food source for these bears. EATEN explored the possibilities of what could happen if this food source suddenly fails.

Similarly, effective conservation of the North Atlantic Right Whales (below) has resulted in increased numbers after being overrun for centuries. In recent years, however, some have been trapped and died in the sea ice of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The timing and location of some of these ice trapping events suggest that some right and blue whales have rediscovered traditional feeding grounds in the northern Gulf along the south coast of Quebec – which we know because Basque whalers hunt there in 1520-1625.

The following excerpt (my bold type) is from a commentary article published in the Chronicle Herald of Halifax, Nova Scotia on March 22, 2019 (by Paul Brodie, a former DFO employee who specializes in whale research). Pack ice could pose a new threat to right whale migration:

Early commercial whaling in the Gulf of St. Lawrence was carried out by Basque whalers from 1520 to 1625after fishermen returned with news of abundant whale populations. Right and bowhead whales, attracted to the northern Gulf by concentrations of zooplankton, were present in sufficient numbers to sustain whaling for generations with existing technology.

The current global number for right whales can be up to 20,000 and consist of multiple populations that are either stable or increasing. Of that number, the 425-450 North Atlantic Right Whales, which are initially summery in the Bay of Fundy / Gulf of Maine, appear to be of the greatest importance. Collisions with ships and entanglements in fishing gear were the main causes of death.

The number of this monitored population has shifted to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where about 30 to 40 percent live in the summer. However, this comes at the expense of an additional source of mortality: exposure to changing pack ice.

Should right whales rediscover the old feeding and whaling areas of the northern Gulf, they will be further endangered. There is a long history of hundreds of large whales trapped in ice and suffocated, and more recently In 2015, at least six blue whales were caught and died in heavy ice.

In the spring of 2017 there was record ice off Newfoundland and Labrador and Newfoundland, caught many fishing vessels. It has been well documented by the media. There was also a succession of right whale carcasses in various stages of decomposition that drifted in the ice water towards the southern Gulf and were likely released as the northern pack ice opened and deteriorated. Several deaths have been attributed to ship attacks and equipment entanglements, and tThe majority of the “blunt power trauma” that can occur when hundreds of square kilometers of wind- and electricity-powered rafting pack ice (each square kilometer weighs 500,000 to a million tons) envelops and suffocates large whales for days or weeks.

Blue whales that hibernate on the continental shelf explore the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence through the Cabot Strait as early as the end of March and move north along the ice edge as they pass Port aux Basques. My first direct observation was that two blue whales were feeding near the ice front in the Strait of Belle Isle in April 1967. That seemed quite dangerous if the pack ice shifted towards the shore. In the spring of 2015, six or more blue whales as well as humpback whales and sperm whales were lost.

Should right whales occupy their historic northern feeding grounds, they would suffer a similar fate. 2017 was a year of record-breaking pack ice along the north coast of Newfoundland and Labrador: a year in which at least 12 right whale carcasses were discovered in the central and southern Gulf.

Read the whole thing here.

When creating the storyline for UPHEAVAL, I asked myself whether these whale victims of the ice enclosure in the Gulf could become an attraction for polar bears, as was recorded in the Arctic from Wrangel Island to Pond Inlet and Disko Bay in Greenland. I speculated whether ice-killed whale carcasses might have a strong pull to lure polar bears of the Davis Strait of Labrador and the Strait of Belle Isle into the Gulf of St. Lawrence – and if so, what might happen next, especially if The region is hit by a tsunami while it is covered in sea ice.

Speculation like this is what science fiction is about, and it is the forum for that kind of guesswork.

Compare this to an article published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal that had a similar level of imagination but was classified as "science." Kristin Laidre, Ian Stirling, and others (Laidre et al. 2018) suggested, without any evidence, that polar bears “likely” survived low ice levels during the Eemian interglacial and other warm periods by capturing and utilizing dead whale carcasses during the ice-free season this baseless premise to advance their advocacy view that polar bears' future survival is doomed to failure due to human-made climate change.

Of course, the media ignored the baseless nature of the original premise and presented something that may have occurred in the past as something that definitely did – see here, here and here. In other words, they were selling a lie to the public claiming that a biologist's guess was a scientifically proven fact.

Bottom line: Presenting science-informed speculation as fiction is a convenient way to investigate interesting scientific questions, but passing on such guesswork as evidence-based science is dishonest and runs the risk of undermining public confidence in science, especially if it does used to drive an agenda.


Laidre, K. L., Stirling, I., Estes, J. A., Kochnev, A. and Roberts, J. 2018. Historical and potential future importance of large whales as food for polar bears. Limits in ecology and the environment doi: 10.1002 / fee.1963

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