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Sea Unicorns Involved in Arctic Sea Study

Scientists know that the waters north of Greenland, around the Arctic Circle, significantly influence global weather patterns. But until recently, they only have been able to measure the region's deep ocean temperatures during its two warmest months, leaving a large gap in data needed to better understand climate patterns. VOA's Paul Sisco reports on a fascinating new approach to closing the gap.

Biologist Kristin Laidre from the University of Washington is collecting data on ocean temperatures and currents in the Arctic Sea, with help from strange marine mammals called narwhals.

They are tagged and equipped with thermometers that record and transmit data to satellites when the animals surface.

"Narwhals, in a way, are perhaps one of the most reliable platforms we can use up here," she said. "They live in ice-covered waters that are 98 percent covered with sea ice for six months of the year in complete darkness. They are cheap. They predictably go to the bottom of the ocean, and they always find the surface because they need to breath," Laidre added.

Narwhals are commonly called sea unicorns because of the males' long single tusk, almost half the length of their body.

Laidre is spending six months at a polar camp in western Greenland living with colleagues and Inuit hunters. She says, "The hunters that live here are the last kayak hunters, essentially in the Arctic. These people are extraordinarily skilled at making kayaks, at paddling kayaks, and at hunting whales from their kayaks."

What is daily life like at camp? "I wouldn't recommend it to anybody that likes to lounge around in their bathrobe and house slippers with a cafe latte every morning. We have one main tent that we all share where we cook. Occasionally, some of the guys will catch something. We've eaten all kinds of things from whales to caribou to birds."

She says it is beautiful here, but the work can be tough. "Attaching a satellite tag to a narwhal isn't necessarily the easiest thing to do."

But already these unicorns of the Arctic are helping Kristin Laidre and other scientists better understand, study and document changes in their icy world -- and ours.