Belugas: Sentinels of Climate Change in the Arctic (2023-2024)


The Arctic is experiencing rapid ecosystem changes in the face of global climate change. Overall declines in seasonal sea ice are affecting marine ecosystems in unprecedented ways. Primary productivity patterns of organisms are changing as early sea ice retreat and persistent winds alter ocean mixing. Changes in reproduction of fish and other sea life in turn alter the distribution and behavior of ocean predators. Many species are also responding directly to sea ice changes, along with human communities that have relied on them for millennia. 

The marine ecosystem of Hudson Bay is a prime example of how changing sea ice conditions and global human activities create challenges for indigenous Inuit communities. For example, hydroelectric power generation in eastern Hudson Bay has altered sea ice dynamics considerably in the Belcher Islands, directly affecting the Sanikiluaq communities that have inhabited the archipelago for millennia.

The Churchill region of Hudson Bay also represents a key habitat for belugas (Delphinapterus leucas), a medium-sized toothed whale that congregates in large numbers each summer to molt, give birth to their calves and feed on abundant fish found at the interface of three local estuaries. It is unclear as of yet how climate change will affect belugas.

Project Description

This project seeks to better understand how marine ecosystems are evolving in the face of climate change, using belugas in the Churchill region as model organisms. The project will be carried out through an integrative field and lab experience with a range of team members, focused on four goals. 

First, the project will involve a course on the conservation of high-latitude marine megafauna, including a seven-day field trip to Churchill in August 2023 that will focus on marine mammal ecology and conservation. Second, students on the team will be guided through individual study projects during Fall 2023 and Spring 2024, focused on remotely sensed data (satellites, drones, hydrophones, visual sightings and/or behavioral observations) collected during the field course. Third, Duke students will be connected with leading scientists from a range of disciplines and institutions who conduct related research in the Arctic and elsewhere. Finally, students will share the outcomes of their research in scientific publications, open-access datasets and online resources for the general public. 

Anticipated Outputs

Scientific publications and story-map web pages; publication of all maps and data as open-access datasets for future analyses; live-streamed webinars or podcast episodes open to general public, targeted to inhabitants of remote communities in study region

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this team will include 7 undergraduate students and 3 graduate/professional students. Undergraduates may come from a variety of disciplines, but the work will be most accessible to students with some natural sciences training. The professional students ideally will be Master of Environmental Management candidates. 

Students should be interested in climate change and how it is affecting marine and coastal systems. Those interested in the technical aspects of research, like remote sensing, population biology, marine ecology and technical approaches to marine conservation such as drones, machine learning and bioacoustics will be an excellent fit. 

Students will gain an appreciation of the Canadian North and the people who inhabit it. They will learn extensively about how climate change affects high-latitude ecosystems and how researchers study these systems. Students will learn to present to audience via livestream or podcast technologies, and will practice the basics of scientific writing. Independent student projects will give students access to new analytical skills including geospatial analysis, acoustic analysis, machine learning and a range of field skills.

All students are expected to participate in the summer field course. The team will then spend the fall of 2023 working in parallel on different aspects of the collected dataset and bring together reports on their experience to a weekly seminar focused on the ecology and conservation of belugas in the Churchill region. The team will continue to meet regularly in the spring of 2024 for weekly writing workshops to work independently or collaboratively on project-related writing. All students will coauthor the final synthesis paper. 


Summer 2023 – Spring 2024

  • Summer 2023: All team members collect data and participate in a field course, including trip to the Churchill region in Manitoba, Canada 
  • Fall 2023: Write reports and create other products based on data collected during Summer 2023
  • Spring 2024: Continue working with data from Summer 2023; write final report/synthesis paper


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

This Team in the News

Faculty Perspectives: David Johnston

Beluga whale underwater.

Team Leaders

  • David Johnston, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation
  • Andrew Read, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation

/graduate Team Members

  • Isaac Benaka, Master of Environmental Management, Coastal Environmental Management
  • Christiana Bishop, Master of Environmental Management, Coastal Environmental Management
  • Bryan Graybill, Business Administration-MBA, Master of Environmental Management, Ecosystem Science and Conservation
  • Aileen Lavelle, Master of Environmental Management, Coastal Environmental Management
  • Greg Merrill, Ecology-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Gabrielle Moreau, Robertson Scholarship - UNC
  • Sara Norton, Biology (BS)
  • Lily Samuels, IDM:VMS-CS Computational Media

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Douglas Nowacek, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation
  • Brian Silliman, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation
  • Jennifer Swenson, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Douglas Clark, School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan
  • Justine Hudson, Fisheries and Oceans Canada