Saimaa seals have difficulty giving birth due to climate change

It is five degrees outside on a grey and foggy Saturday morning in January on Lake Saimaa in Finland. Winter has not made any significant advances since November and instead of a fresh coat of snow, there is rain or, at most, sleet. Humidity is high and temperatures are mild. We’ve already grown used to news of glaciers melting and polar bears losing their natural habitat. The melting of glaciers seems a concern distant from our everyday lives, but climate change is also affecting species in Finland.

The Saimaa ringed seal is a sad example of a species falling victim to climate change. It is the only lake seal in the world to give birth inside a snow cavern it builds onto the ice. The thick walls of the cavern provide the pup with adequate protection and give the mother the peace and quiet she needs. This evolutionary process of adapting to these conditions has taken tens of thousands of years. As things stand, these animals would have to adapt to drastically different conditions in a matter of years. This year, there is barely any snow to speak of, with wide cracks in the ice making the water plainly visible. Without human help, the Saimaa ringed seal is doomed to extinction in a short time.

According to the latest count, there are around 360 Saimaa ringed seals alive today. If it weren’t for humans piling up snow or making a makeshift nest, the newborn cubs would either freeze to death or end up at the mercy of predators. Therefore, nature conservation organizations and local authorities have, in recent years, come together to build nests for the seals. Thanks to these efforts, reproduction is partially successful, even if a number of threats remain, such as traffic or curious wanderers near the nest. Another grave danger is fishing nets made out of nylon. One can’t help but wonder why natural materials can’t be used to make nets, or techniques used that would make the net give way.

Today, there are 17 friends of nature in Taipalsaari, on the Lake Saimaa ice. It is very thick, surprisingly, in spite of the lack of snow. The proceedings are overseen by an enthusiastic dog, Pieta. The peace and tranquillity of Saimaa is a welcome sight for both the eyes and the mind. During light, we manage to make four piles of snow, each about a meter tall and eight meters long. The seals can now burrow their nests into them. We sure were fortunate to have a quad-bike with a plow to hand. On a snowless winter, some two hundred piles of snow are needed to help the seals reproduce. If in about a decade’s time, both the snow and the ice are gone, we will be fighting a truly desperate battle. This is why we are in dire need of both tangible actions to help the Saimaa ringed seal and a reinvigorated effort against climate change in general. This is something we can all be involved in through making informed and climate-conscious choices and supporting efforts to tackle climate change.

Päivi Lundvall, Director, Finnish Association for Nature Conservation

Pictures: Tapio Kujala
Posted on 28 January 2017