Published: November 13, 2015
Science & Tech
Climate Change in the Artic: What Does it Mean For Plants and People?
Recently, Ned Fetcher, Ph.D., from Wilkes University came to the University and presented us with his findings from a study of the artic climate that he has been doing for over 20 years. Whether you believe in global warming or not, the predictions “made by scientists from the 80’s are largely correct.” Global warming is fastest in the artic compared to anywhere else in the world, and the comparison made between two photos from Barrow, Alaska showed this clearly. A picture from 1978 showed ice almost completely covering a lake and the accompanying hillsides. Fast forwarding to the photo taken recently, and the ice has almost completely vanished with no ice being seen on the lake at all.
Fetcher studied the foundation species Eriophorum vaginatum, which form tussocks in the artic. A foundation species refers to an organism that has a strong role in a community and is the dominant, primary producer in an ecosystem. Over the years, Fetcher has noticed that the artic is undergoing shrubification. This is the transition from tundra to shrubs. Fetcher’s experiment involved taking tussocks from different parts of the tundra in Alaska and transplanting them to other sites in the arctic. This experiment proved that there is an adaptive lag occurring with the tussocks in the artic.
Adaptive lag refers to the mismatch between the fitness of an organism and the climate that it lives in. These tussocks were shown to do better when they were transplanted back into their home sites which proved that different architypes of tussocks exist. So what does this mean as the climate continues to change? Fetcher described a continuation in the decline of fitness in the tussocks and an eventual take over by other foliage. This has already begun with shrubification.
So the main question we have to be asking is why is this important? To begin, we look at the Anaktuvuk Burn that occurred in the artic between August and September of 2007. These fires are more smoke than flame, but they release the carbon trapped into the soil below the tussocks. This has big ramifications on our atmosphere. Fletcher described the release of the carbon from the Anaktuvuk Burn as being “a coal train 1,000 miles long.”
It is speculated that 2.3 million metric tons of carbon were released during this burn and the amount of fires occurring annually is only rising. The fires lead to a black layer where the tussocks once were and willcause even more carbon to be released over time. This leads to more CO2 in our atmosphere and rising temperatures. This has major ramifications for people that live in the area. The town of Rivaling, Alaska will have to completely relocate within the next 10 years due to rising water levels from ice continuing to melt. When it comes to these carbon emissions, “there is no coming back. We expect another 1C (1.8 F) rise in temperature within the coming years.” To most of us this may seem small, but this small rise in temperature will have ramifications that will be felt all over the world.
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