SMALL, white, fluffy and helpless, the little harp seal stares out at the vast ocean as it floats on a perilously tiny piece of ice in the Arctic.

Alone and vulnerable, with its fate in the balance, the pup makes one of the most poignant images in the ­latest – and possibly hardest hitting – David Attenborough documentary, Frozen Planet II.

It is a harp seal, a species whose ­existence may depend on what the outcome is of the current global ­climate crisis conference in Egypt.

To get the extraordinary footage for the documentary, a cameraman and producer travelled with a team from the University of St Andrews and Fisheries and Oceans Canada ­researching the seals.

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While Dr James Grecian of the St Andrews team is pleased the ­documentary aired the problems ­facing the seals because of global warming, he is worried the current talks at COP27 will not produce the action needed to protect them.

He told the Sunday National that if global warming exceeds the agreed 1.5C target then their future is “bleak”.

And it is not just the seals that would be in trouble. The Arctic may seem far from the UK but if the sea ice continues to reduce because of warming temperatures it will have repercussions for the climate here, likely leading to more extreme storms and floods.

Over the last four decades, two thirds of the summer Arctic sea ice has been lost and if the 1.5 target is missed – as predicted on the current trajectory – it will all be gone within 30 years.

The National: Dr James Grecian is pleased the ­documentary aired the problems ­facing the seals (Image Credit: @BBCStudios)Dr James Grecian is pleased the ­documentary aired the problems ­facing the seals (Image Credit: @BBCStudios)

“That has pretty broad scale ­repercussions for us as the Arctic ice is a really important modulator of our climate,” said Grecian (above), who is now based at Durham University.

Key species other than seals, such as polar bears and walrus, would also suffer.

“Unfortunately if you look at the amount of CO2 that various ­countries around the world are producing and compare that to the models we are nowhere near a maximum of 1.5C warming,” he pointed out.

“We need the world leaders to start acting on their commitments they made at COP26 in Glasgow last year. We need drastic political will to stick to the 1.5C target.”

A 1.5C warmer world would still have enough sea ice in the winter for the seals to breed on and there would still be sea ice in the ­summer which has benefits for other key ­species such as polar bears, whales and ­walrus.

However, the harp seals act as a barometer to the health of the ­Arctic ecosystem and there are ­already warning signs that they are ­struggling.

“We are seeing changes in ­pregnancy rates as the number of pups being born has reduced and we are also seeing failed pregnancies,” said Grecian.

Like some other mammals, seal mothers can delay implantation of their embryos so the pups can be born at the optimum time.

“It’s really clever but what we are seeing is the mothers realising they are not in good enough condition to give birth and successfully raise a pup,” said Grecian. “Our colleagues in Canada are seeing scar tissues in the wombs of mums that suggest they are aborting pregnancies.

“So we are seeing populations starting to struggle as we have had years now where the ice doesn’t form as well and the mums try to give birth on very thin ice.”

At the moment the ice reaches the Gulf of St Lawrence but if global warming continues it is expected that the ice will not expand as far south in winter and will disappear from the gulf.

Last winter, following the filming of the documentary and the team’s tagging, the ice broke up too ­quickly and many pups were washed up along the coast. The team’s work was also ­disrupted by a storm which meant that the pups they had been ­planning to tag were last seen ­floating on a small piece of ice drifting 100 miles offshore.

“It was a good size piece of ice so hopefully they were OK but we don’t know,” said Grecian.

“The really critical time is the first couple of weeks when the pups are still nursing with the mum. They are not very buoyant and if storms break up the ice, the pups are often washed into the water and drown.”

Grecian, who decided to become a scientist after growing up on a diet of David Attenborough documentaries, said taking part in Frozen Planet II was a “fantastic” opportunity to tell the harp seal story.

“For me it was quite important as they are really a key species in the Arctic and a useful indicator of the changes we are seeing,” he said.

“My hope was that it would lead to more conversations about the impact of climate change, what we are doing to the planet and what we can do to try and prevent damaging it further.

The National: David Attenborough has been outspoken about the need to combat climate changeDavid Attenborough has been outspoken about the need to combat climate change

“If you look at the reaction on ­social media to the final programme and the things David Attenborough said, I think it did strike a chord with people. Hopefully it will spur action.”

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However he is worried there has not been enough ­progress to slow global warming since the COP in Glasgow.

“We need action but I am not ­seeing much movement,” Grecian said. “I hope people come together at COP27 and agree enough to stay on target for a 1.5C warmer world because we are starting to run out of chances.

“In the midst of an energy and cost of living crisis people may say we can’t afford to tackle this issue now, that it will be too expensive. But the Office for Budget Responsibility has said the UK’s climate targets will cost the government less over the next 30 years than the costs of tackling the Covid pandemic.

Grecian added: “The other thing to consider is the UK housing stock is the oldest and least energy ­efficient in Europe. It is responsible for more carbon emissions than all the cars on our roads. Simply improving ­insulation and moving away from gas central heating would tackle the climate crisis, reduce our reliance on imported energy, and lower energy bills. It would be a win-win.”