Recent bans on Arctic and Atlantic drilling may help protect one of the coolest species to be affected by climate change… the narwhal.

Arctic Drilling Ban

Prime Minister Trudeau and President Obama recently announced a joint ban on offshore oil and gas activity in Arctic and Atlantic waters. The US has permanently banned oil and gas development in the Chukchi, Beaufort, and Atlantic Seas. Canada has placed a renewable 5-year ban on new licensing projects in Arctic waters. 

This celebrated achievement is not without criticism. Northern territories and communities are concerned about sovereignty and employment opportunities.  Some environmentalists see this ban as a ploy, painting Trudeau as an environmental protector despite his recent approval of the Trans Mountain and Line 3 pipeline projects.

Despite the nay-sayers, this joint ban provides protection to regions most vulnerable to climate change and negative effects of oil exploration. The cold Arctic and Atlantic waters are host to delicate and diverse creatures, each having important roles within their ecosystem. One of these creatures (personally believed to be a mythical legend from the movie Elf) is the narwhal.


Mr. Narwhal, Unicorn of the Sea

Easily one of the coolest living creatures, the narwhal is a toothed whale that lives year-round in the Arctic waters around Greenland, Canada and Russia. At present there are 75,000 narwhal in existence, classifying them a “near threatened” species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The characteristic “tusk” seen in 1 out of 500 males is actually a long, spiralling tooth that can grow to 3m in length. 15% females have a shorter, less spiralled tusks. There have been rare sightings of males and females with two tusks.


The purpose of this mythical tooth has stumped societies for centuries. Inuit legend tells a tale of a woman swept into the sea, her hair twisting to form the helix tooth of the narwhal. Medieval lore claims the tusk of the “sea unicorn” has magical powers, able to neutralize poison and cure melancholia. 

Modern hypotheses regarding use of the tooth include:

  • a sexual characteristic, used to attract mates
  • a weapon, used to establish dominance or kill prey
  • a tool, used to break through surface ice

However, a recent discovery has provided the most amazing hypothesis so far…

A Sensitive Subject

Martin Nweeia, a marine dental specialist at Harvard University, suggests the tusk is a large sensory organ. With millions of nerve endings and blood vessels, this sensitive tooth sends messages to the narwhal’s brain about their ocean environment. Similar to the nerve sensitivity humans experience in teeth when eating cold ice cream, the narwhal’s tusk reacts to the salinity (saltiness) of ocean water.narwhal-iceNweeia believes narwhals use their tusks to measure local salt concentrations, determining whether nearby icebergs are melting (less salt) or forming (more salt). Narwhals migrate between ice-free summer grounds and thick pack ice covered winter grounds. Therefore, the tusk may be an important tool in determining departure times from seasonal grounds.

Males are often seen rubbing tusks together, an act previously thought to arise from male-to-male rivalry. This engagement is now thought to communicate information about the water each has traveled through.

Benefits of the Ban

Due to altering sea ice coverage, the narwal is one of the most vulnerable Arctic marine mammals to climate change. Warmer Arctic temperatures are delaying seasonal formation of sea ice. These delays are being connected to dangerous and unusual entrapment events. Additionally, less ice means more open water, a much easier environment for hunting of narwhal.

Fortunately, the new ban on Arctic drilling does provide relief. A ban on drilling means less excavation and drilling on the sea floor. This means less species extinction, which allows food chains to thrive. With an undistrubed ecosystem the narwhal can maintain a healthy diet.


This ban also limits potential Arctic warming associated with drilling processes and burning of oil. Hopefully this contribution, or absence of contribution, will help normalize ice formation over time.

There is work to be done

With no mention of seismic surveys in Trudeau and Obama’s collaboration, this ban falls short of complete protection.

Seismic surveys associated with oil exploration are known to disrupt normal marine migration patterns, which may also be associated with increased sea ice entrapment of narwhals.

The citizens of Clyde River, Nunavut are leading a heroic fight against seismic testing in Baffin Bay, narwhal territory. Listen to a in-depth discussion on CBC’s As It Happens with Clyde River Mayor Jerry Natanine here.

Canada’s Supreme Court will hear the case in 2017.