Seal lying on sand

Seal lying on sand amid fishing net and other human debris.

(Photo by NOAA on Unsplash)

Seals, Satellites, and Dung Beetles — What Links Them?

The answer is in the stars.

Imagine hunting for a fish dinner in the middle of the ocean, in the middle of the night without flashlight, compass, or iPhone . . . and then to find a way back to land. This is what seals must accomplish on a regular basis to survive. These pinnipeds, so often seen posing with a ball balanced perfectly on a whiskered nose or bowing gracefully for a circus display, have skills that cannot be seen on the stage. In fact, they give our close relatives the chimpanzees something to envy.

One sign of intelligence is an ability to recognize and respond to human gestures. Chimpanzees have difficulty doing this. Dogs are one of a few species capable of doing so. It turns out seals, too, can recognize human gestures and, surprisingly, perform even better than dogs at these tasks, as has been demonstrated through research. The grey seal outshone almost all the other animal contestants.

A dog resting comfortably by the fireplace after a nice meal is a familiar sight for many of us, and it does not take a stretch of the imagination to picture a seal doing the same on a bit of rock or sand after a dinner of fish. The intelligence of the two creatures is comparable, and to some degree, the look of their furry heads, pointy noses, and soulful eyes. Perhaps it’s time to extend a little of the love we feel for our pets to their oceanic counterparts far out in the sea. There is a good reason.

Seals face many threats in the wild — loss of habitat, loss of food, pollution, numerous climate change impacts. But there may be a new one. Seals hunt for food at night and must find their way back to shore. Studies have demonstrated that harbor seals can navigate using a lodestar and learned star courses. What would happen if this vital star map was disrupted?

Low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites are brightly visible in the night sky, and could interfere with star navigation. SpaceX, the largest producer of LEO satellites to date, has launched over 3,000 Starlink satellites with plans to launch as many as 42,000. And while SpaceX is the the largest producer of LEO satellites, it is not the only one.

Astronomers have raised concerns that low Earth orbit satellites are visible and inhibit scientific research. The International Association of Astronomers has set up a Centre for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky from Satellite Constellation Interference as a response. The astronomer Meredith Rawls has described the plans of launching thousands more satellites in the coming years as “an unsustainable trajectory”.

In addition to creating streaks in photos and hampering astronomical observations, satellites will also handicap creatures like seals, migratory birds, and even the humble dung beetle, all who use stars for navigation.

Among birds, Indigo buntings prefer to travel at night during migration. Scientists studying the buntings found that the birds rely on star patterns to determine north. European robins and yellow underwing moths also use the stars in travel.

If the Milky Way map is disrupted by a projected 65,000 satellites as is expected in a few years, they will light up the sky. They will not only affect astronomy research, but may also affect the survival of many creatures large and small. There are likely many more species that rely on stars beyond the ones discussed in this article - scientists have only scratched the surface of star navigation research.

Global Internet is a necessary purpose, but if it costs species their lives, then perhaps we could have global internet that is just a tad slower — with satellites not quite so low in orbit.

There is another aspect of LEO satellites that is a cause for concern. It is one that threatens not only the survival of other species but also our own. Starlink satellites burn up in the atmosphere leaving a residue (aluminum oxide) that reflects sunlight and could deplete the ozone layer. Furthermore, the full effects of aluminum in the atmosphere are unknown and could be severe. SpaceX might argue that meteoroid material comes in every day - but it is made up mostly of oxygen, magnesium, and silicon. Satellites, by contrast, are made primarily of aluminum. Aluminum can burn to reflective aluminum oxide, which may alter the climate to worsen warming of the planet. Scientists are also concerned that aluminum oxide could create a hole in the ozone layer.

As recently as February 2022, about 40 Starlink Satellites burned up in the atmosphere. And burning up is the ultimate fate for all of them — all 42,000 plus.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is at present examining whether satellite licensing should require environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), but it may take considerable time, from months to years, for a decision to be reached, and the decision may not end up affecting satellites already approved and in space. Since 1986, the FCC has enjoyed a categorical exclusion from NEPA. One can only hope for a prompt determination that can have a preventive effect.

An uncontrolled aluminum experiment capable of creating holes in the ozone layer and exacerbating global warming is highly risky because we may not have a second chance.

We used to think lead paint was a great idea. Years later, we discovered health risks and began removing it. The trouble is, if we find out a few years from now that aluminum is destroying the atmosphere, we cannot dispense with it as easily as the lead paint.

The seals are enduring the consequences of human activity in more than one way. Is it too much to ask that we give them a chance?

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