Arctic ecosystems being nibbled away

July 23, 2001

The Arctic's fragile ecosystems are threatened by disturbances from petroleum development to ecotourism. New research shows that even small disturbances may permanently damage tundra: for instance, the single pass of a heavy tank- like tracked vehicle can drain an Arctic meadow.

"In the increasingly accessible Artic, we need to be wary of relatively small and seemingly insignificant disturbances. Some of the most productive landscapes are being slowly 'nibbled' away," says Bruce Forbes of the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland, who did this work with two co- authors. This work in the August issue of Conservation Biology.

This is the first circumpolar assessment of how small-scale human disturbances affect Arctic ecosystems.

The Arctic -- lands poleward of the treeline -- has large populations of caribou (which are wild) and reindeer (which are domesticated), and provides critical nesting habitat for immense numbers of shore and water birds. The most controversial threat to Arctic ecosystems is oil and natural gas development. The U.S. may pump oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; Canada is likely toextract gas just east of the refuge; and Russian and northern European energy companies are already operating in the Arctic.

Other threats to Arctic ecosystems include mining, military activities, heavy reindeer grazing, and recreational activities such as camping, hiking and off-road vehicle use.

Based on recent existing studies, Forbes and his co-authors evaluated how well Arctic ecosystems recover from human disturbance. The most extreme disturbances completely remove the tundra's plant layer and only the smallest, wettest patches recovered on their own within 20-75 years. For instance, dry patches more than three feet across still had bare centers even after 20 years, largely due to wind erosion.

The researchers also found that lasting changes can result from disturbances that leave the plant layer intact. One of the most widespread disturbances in the Arctic is heavy tracked vehicles, and driving them through an area only once during the summer can be enough to cause long-term damage. Dwarf shrubs can die, meadows can drain rapidly and dry out, and the permafrost that most tundra ecosystems depend on can melt. While summer traffic is banned in the North American Arctic, winter traffic can also be damaging if the snow is thin.

Similarly, pedestrian trampling can decrease plant biodiversity, for example favoring willows and rapidly growing grasses over most other plants; and flatten the hummocks and hollows that give geographical diversity -- and so plant diversity -- to the landscape.

"A wide range of small disturbances resulted in...reduced species diversity," say Forbes and his colleagues. "In addition to the more obvious and large-scale effects associated with petroleum development, mining and military activity, the explosive growth of ecotourism is affecting all sectors of the Arctic. We suggest that serious consideration should also be given to the less visible effects of seemingly benign recreational activities that inevitably accompany tourism development."

Forbes' co-authors are: James Ebersole of Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Beate Strandberg of the National Environmental Research Institute in Silkeborg, Denmark.
Please mention Conservation Biology as the source of these items. For faxes of papers, contact Robin Meadows

For more information about the Society for Conservation Biology:

*Bruce Forbes (011-358-16-341-2710,
[NOTE: July 25-29 he will be available at 011-358-40-847-9202 or via e-mail]
*James Ebersole (719-389-6401,
*Beate Strandberg (011-45-89-20-17-69,

*Bruce Forbes has scans of disturbed tundra in Northwest Siberia

Bruce Forbes' website

Reindeer Management

Bruce Forbe's paper on development in Northwest Siberia

Society for Conservation Biology

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