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A Pandemic of Virtual Conferences


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Whales and seals Arctic

Published

2022-02-05

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, two years ago, scientific conferences (like any other social gathering) have been canceled one after the other.

By Niki Diogou

You are an introvert and you will soon be facing a crowd of 3,000 people. You know a tiny proportion of them. Now, you are required to interact with them, give a talk, establish new collaborations, mingle. Do that for at least 10 hours each day for four days. Sounds pretty scary, eh? Lucky for you, all this in-person performance pressure is now replaced by a virtual gathering where you can “meet” these 3,000 people online and present from the comfort of your home, all while wearing your pyjamas bottoms, if you want.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, two years ago, scientific conferences (like any other social gathering) have been canceled one after the other. Sooner than later, these conferences were moved online and were transformed into the equivalent of a very long webinar.

And that’s how I once again found myself online participating in the ArcticNet Meeting, this past December. A week during which we filled our days with images from the Canadian Arctic, discussions of science, ecology, Indigenous communities, their health and conservation. At the end of it, I felt I knew the Arctic a bit more and I wanted to visit it a lot more. More importantly, our entire WCS Western Arctic Program team participated with talks and research presentations.

The Arctic is an area of immense conservation value for the entire world. It is one of the few remaining pristine habitats, largely untouched, practically protected by a thick layer of ice. While temperatures are increasing globally, in the Arctic they are rising twice as fast. As sea ice is melting, the Arctic and its sensitive ecosystem get exposed to a suite of human-activities, including invasive industrial infrastructure and more shipping. WCS Canada is investing a huge effort to investigate the potential impacts from these unprecedented changes to the Arctic communities and wildife and is looking for ways to address them.

At ArcticNet, Steve Insley presented a research summary about thick-billed murres, which are sometimes referred to as “Arctic penguins.” The WCS team focused on a small and unstudied population that they measured, tagged and took samples from for analysis at Cape Parry last summer. Steve and his coauthors found that adult murres forage to distances up to 17 km and are busy foraging for up to 16 hours continuously (!) each day within the Anguniaqvia niqiqyuam Marine Protected Area (ANMPA). From measuring 69 seabirds, they were able to divide them between eastern and western phenotypes, and find that they mainly feed on daubed shanny, Pacific sandlance, and arctic cod.

Core use areas of Cape Parry thick-billed murres, eastern Beaufort Sea

Bill Halliday presented his work on the risk of ship strikes on bowhead whales. With ship traffic in the Arctic increasing as ice rapidly melts thanks to global warming, bowheads, which are relative slow moving, are becoming increasingly threatened. Bill and his coauthors combined telemetry and aerial survey data for whales with automated ship tracking data to estimate bowhead and ship density in the Arctic. They found that in bowhead hotspots (Utqiagvik, Tutoyaktuk, and Gulf of Boothia, Bella Bay, and Cumberland Sound) the peak collission risk occurred in August and September mainly from tankers, container and cruise ships. Here is a look at Bill’s talk:

ECWG Vessel Strike Risk

Morgan Martin described her findings from analyzing telemetry tracks from nine beluga whales, 24 bowheads from the Bering Chukchi- Beaufort stock and 45 bowheads from the East Canada-West Greenland stock. She looked at ship tracks (AIS data) that fell within a 125 km radius of a whale track, looking for any effect from shipping noise on the behavior of the animals. Morgan showed that at 13 km away from the ship, a beluga changed direction to avoid the ship. She also showed hundreds of bowhead exposures to ships at a distance of less than 50 km.

Beluga path

Annika Heimrich presented her study on the effects of ambient noise on bearded seal vocalizations in the western Canadian Arctic. Annika showed that underwater sound levels are higher during the bearded seal breeding season. These guys are loud! She focused on three typical call types that bearded seals produce and found that their frequency range increases as ambient noise gets louder. That’s an indication of the “cocktail party effect” (scientifically, the “lombart effect”) where the animals change their vocalization characteristics (frequency/amplitude) in response to loud environmental noise. Snapshot to Annika’s talk:

Seal call

Finally, I had my moment in the spotlight presenting a summary of my results from analyzing acoustic data at new three sites in the Amundsen Gulf to detect marine mammal species (and fish calls) and quantify patterns of when and where bowheads were acoustically detected. Bowhead calls were recorded throughout the year (in what was previously their summer feeding ground!) with highest detection rates from April until September. Bowhead presence is more prominent at the shallower location (50 m) at Cape Bathrust. Belugas, bearded and ringed seals and fish were recorded at all three stations, with more occurrences during spring and summer. Besides the summary, you can also watch a 3-min video presentation that I prepared to guide the audience through it.

Year-round Acousitic Presence of Bowhead Whales and Seasonal Detections of other Marine Mammals in the Canadian Arctic

ArcticNet was my first big Arctic conference and it taught me a lot about my wider study area. Most importantly, it was the first meeting we all participated in as a team (the WCS Western Arctic Program). Half of these team members I haven’t met in-person yet. So getting back to face-to-face conferences will be an important opportunity to really connect with colleagues, friends, potential collaborations, or even funders.

Besides transmitting knowledge, a conference is a celebration of science where scientists get fully immersed in a bubble filled with what they decided to invest their life in, accompanied by everyone else who made the same choice. Conferences feel like an escape from real world for a few days and a chance to indulge in a deep dive into a specific scientific field. Travelling to a new place/country magnifies this effect. They remind me of the huge wedding of a family member that you haven’t seen for many years. It is an opportunity to catch up in life and work, some gossip, and race to the buffet when the time comes.

This feeling is hard to achieve while you are in front of the screen trying to juggle between online talks, everything else you work on, and whatever else is happening in your house/life. So for the introverts, and performance-anxious out there (like me), I say let it get uncomfortable and difficult. Where would we be if we never stepped out of our confort zone after all?

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