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.
-end-
Please mention Conservation Biology as the source of these items. For faxes of papers, contact Robin Meadows mailto:robin@nasw.org

For more information about the Society for Conservation Biology: http://conbio.net/scb/

CONTACT:
*Bruce Forbes (011-358-16-341-2710, bforbes@urova.fi)
[NOTE: July 25-29 he will be available at 011-358-40-847-9202 or via e-mail]
*James Ebersole (719-389-6401, jebersole@coloradocollege.edu)
*Beate Strandberg (011-45-89-20-17-69, bst@dmu.dk)

PHOTOS:
*Bruce Forbes has scans of disturbed tundra in Northwest Siberia

WEBSITES:
Bruce Forbes' website
http://www.urova.fi/home/arktinen/bforbes/

Reindeer Management
http://www.paliskunnat.fi/renman/

Bruce Forbe's paper on development in Northwest Siberia
http://home.planet.nl/~innusupp/english/forbes2.html

Society for Conservation Biology

Related Arctic Articles from Brightsurf:

Archive of animal migration in the Arctic
A global archive with movement data collected across three decades logs changes in the behaviour of Arctic animals

The Arctic is burning in a whole new way
'Zombie fires' and burning of fire-resistant vegetation are new features driving Arctic fires -- with strong consequences for the global climate -- warn international fire scientists in a commentary published in Nature Geoscience.

Warming temperatures are driving arctic greening
As Arctic summers warm, Earth's northern landscapes are changing. Using satellite images to track global tundra ecosystems over decades, a new study found the region has become greener, as warmer air and soil temperatures lead to increased plant growth.

Arctic transitioning to a new climate state
The fast-warming Arctic has started to transition from a predominantly frozen state into an entirely different climate with significantly less sea ice, warmer temperatures, and more rain, according to a comprehensive new study of Arctic conditions.

New depth map of the Arctic Ocean
An international team of researchers has published the most detailed submarine map of the Artic Ocean.

Where are arctic mosquitoes most abundant in Greenland and why?
Bzz! It's mosquito season in Greenland. June and July is when Arctic mosquitoes (Aedes nigripes) are in peak abundance, buzzing about the tundra.

What happens in Vegas, may come from the Arctic?
Ancient climate records from Leviathan Cave, located in the southern Great Basin, show that Nevada was even hotter and drier in the past than it is today, and that one 4,000-year period in particular may represent a true, ''worst-case'' scenario picture for the Southwest and the Colorado River Basin -- and the millions of people who rely on its water supply.

Arctic Ocean changes driven by sub-Arctic seas
New research explores how lower-latitude oceans drive complex changes in the Arctic Ocean, pushing the region into a new reality distinct from the 20th-century norm.

Arctic Ocean 'regime shift'
Stanford scientists find the growth of phytoplankton in the Arctic Ocean has increased 57 percent over just two decades, enhancing its ability to soak up carbon dioxide.

Spider baby boom in a warmer Arctic
Climate change leads to longer growing seasons in the Arctic.

Read More: Arctic News and Arctic Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.