Tag Archives: arctic

Learning about Arctic Regime Shifts

Science magazine has an interesting question and answer interview with Igor Krupnik, an anthropologist from the USA’s Smithsonian Institution, who has a worked with indigenous communities in Alaska and northern Russia. They talk about learning about local ecological knowledge and Arctic regime shifts.

Q: What are some of the biggest differences in how indigenous people and scientists look for change or perceive change in the environment?

I.K.: I wouldn’t put it like “indigenous people” and “scientists.” It’s a difference between someone who lives in the environment daily, and someone who studies it [at a distance]. If you wake up every morning and your day depends upon the weather, if your life depends upon going out and coming back safe, and bringing food and traveling, then you’re naturally much more attentive and in tune to the environment.

The difference between indigenous people and nonindigenous residents is that indigenous people have the advantage of multigenerational knowledge, and traditional knowledge of language, classification, and nomenclature that they learn from parents, grandparents, and other elders. If you’re just a resident scientist, you depend upon what you may watch in the environment on your own.

Q: What’s the relationship between knowledge and language in how it’s transmitted?

I.K.: We’ve always thought that a lot of information is stored and passed via language. We recently tried to document indigenous terminologies for sea ice, as one of the goals of a project during the International Polar Year [2007-2008]. Altogether, we have documented 30 terminologies from different parts of the Arctic. People are using between 60 and more than 100 terms for different types of ice, and their classifications are very different from those used by scientists. Their terminology is always very local, very different from place to place; the richness of the vocabulary is different. It’s not like there’s an “Eskimo terminology” for ice or for snow. There are a dozens of different terminologies.

Q: In your talk, you mentioned the Sea Ice Knowledge and Use (SIKU) Project, where you asked indigenous people to record observations of sea ice change. What were some of the most striking observations that came out of this project?

I.K.: [Indigenous] people keep saying that change has happened before, that we are now documenting an already changed environment. I’m increasingly hearing, “Igor, you’re late. That changed between 1999 and 2000, or 2001.” Probably they are pointing to what biologists and oceanographers call “regime shift” [when ecosystems rapidly change from one relatively stable state to another], which means that the regime shift happened before we started [the project]. Whether it was really an abrupt regime shift or a more gradual one, we don’t know, but we will learn.

Arctic Resilience Assessment research position at SRC

Stockholm Resilience Centre is looking for a researcher in Resilience in Arctic Social-Ecological Systems.  Applications are due Jan 23. The job ad states:

In a joint venture with the Stockholm Environmental Institute,  Stockholm Resilience Centre seeks a researcher to be scientific leader in an Arctic Resilience Report (ARR). The ARR has been approved as an Arctic Council project and is a priority for the Swedish chairmanship of the Arctic Council. The goal of the project is to better understand impacts and risks related to integrated processes of change in the Arctic with focus on the risk for rapid shifts in ecosystems services that affect human well-being. The ARR will furthermore explore strategies to build social-ecological resilience among Arctic communities.

The ARR includes activities until 2015. It is based on active engagement with stakeholders both in identifying valuable aspects of social-ecological systems in the Arctic and identifying drivers that affect them. This will be followed by an analysis of potential tipping points that can affect important ecosystems services and human well-being. An integral part of the assessment is also to identify policy and management options that may be needed for strengthening resilience, for adaptation, and for transformational change when this is necessary. The method for the project will build on and extend the approach developed in the Resilience Assessment workbook.

Work Tasks
You will be the scientific leader of the ARR and work closely with the project leader and other staff at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Stockholm Environment Institute and also with international networks, including the “Resilience Alliance”. Roles and responsibilities of the ARR Scientific Leader include:

  • Provide the scientific leadership in developing and carrying out the resilience assessment in the ARR.
  • Initiate and support different project activities under the ARR, and lead the method development for the resilience assessment.
  • Be the lead person in synthesizing insights and in structuring the interim and final reports of the ARR, and function as one of the lead authors.
  • Together with the ARR Project Leader, establish knowledge partnerships (international research networks, interactions with Arctic Council working groups and core programs, and engagement with key stakeholder groups) required in the assessment work.
  • Work closely with the Project Leader and the rest of the project team on all matters, including raising additional funds.
  • Start establishing an Arctic research group at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, together with the centre leadership.


  • Mid-level to senior academic experience in resilience research and integrated assessments.
  • Experience from research on social-ecological systems and resilience.
  • Research experience from the Arctic region.
  • Experience from policy oriented assessments/studies and participatory research processes.
  • Experience or familiarity with the Arctic Council.

Conditions of Employment
Employment is part-time to full-time (50-100 %), depending on the applicant and to be negotiated individually. Fixed-term contract of one year, subject to renewal up to four years in total. Access immediately. Stockholm University administers individual wages, therefore, please indicate salary requirement.

For more details see the full position announcement.

Loss of Old Arctic Sea Ice

Age of Arctic Sea Ice in February 2008. The February 2008 ice pack (right) contained much more young ice than the long-term average (left). In the mid- to late 1980s, over 20 percent of Arctic sea ice was at least six years old; in February 2008, just 6 percent of the ice was six years old or older.

Old sea ice, which had survived several summers, used to dominate the sea ice of the winter Arctic. However, today less than half of the sea ice at winter maximum has survived at least one summer.  NOAA’s climatewatch has a video of the loss of arctic sea ice.

Yukon Delta from Space

Yukon Delta

A great picture of the organic complexity of the Yukon River Delta from NASA EOS.  They write:

The Yukon River originates in British Columbia, Canada, and flows through Yukon Territory before entering Alaska. In southwestern Alaska, the Yukon Delta spreads out in a vast tundra plain, where the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers meander toward the Bering Sea.

The Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus on the Landsat 7 satellite acquired this natural-color image of the Yukon Delta on September 22, 2002. Looking a little like branching and overlapping blood vessels, the rivers and streams flow through circuitous channels toward the sea, passing and feeding a multitude of coastal ponds and lakes.

The Yukon Delta is an important habitat for waterfowl and migratory birds, and most of the protected refuge is less than 100 feet (30 meters) above sea level. Over such low-lying, mostly treeless terrain, the rivers can change course frequently and carve new channels to find the fastest route toward the sea. The pale color of the sea water around the delta testifies to the heavy sediment load carried by the rivers.

Links: writing, activism, First Nations, Arctic, immigration, and walking

A selection of links I found interesting from around the web

1)  How to write about your science from SciDev.Net

2) Rob Hopkins from Transition Towns writes about the tension between creating change and activism in Transition and activism: a response on Transition Culture.

3) How the distant and dispersed people of Canada’s First Nations are using Facebook from Vancouver’s the Tyee.

4) How climate change will increase coastal accessibility but decrease accessibility to the interior of the Arctic by cutting ice roads.  Toronto Globe and Mail reports on new research in Nature Climate Change (doi:10.1038/nclimate1120).

5) Why more immigration means less crime.  The Walrus reports on how immigration lowers crime rates in Canadian communities in an article Arrival of the Fittest.

6) The Globe and Mail reports on how in Toronto carless recent immigrants are producing a more walkable environment.

Resilience and Life in the Arctic

On Thursday, March 10, 2011, the Resilience Alliance Board voted to accept Eddy Carmack as the new Program Research Director. Eddy is a climate oceanographer studying water and people from oceans to estuaries as scientific lead for the Canada’s Three Oceans monitoring program in the Arctic and Subarctic; he is retiring in 2011.  He invented something extraordinary – a Philosopher’s Cruise on the Canadian icebreaker Louis St. Laurent as it journeyed through the North West Passage while monitoring data were collected. It was like the meetings on islands that the Resilience Alliance delights in.  It brought scientists form different disciplines, from the polar climate change community, philosophers, senior leaders in the Canadian government, Dene from the Canadian Senate, aboriginal and other young people, policy advisors to governments, business people from communications and people from the Resilience Alliance.  We lectured and talked, and discovered new steps. I describe my discoveries and one new step here. – CSH

Is the Arctic about to flip into a new state as a consequence of climate change?   It is certainly the first region of the world where climate change has so clearly demonstrated its early impacts. But it is also the place where political transformations have opened the opportunity for leaders and citizens to address economic, social and ecological changes. Such flips are an inevitable potential in any living system. They are rare but dramatic, and potentially transforming.  One of the steps that can now be made is to join the international science monitoring effort with a community based one.

How We Grow, How We Die, How We Transform

The Arctic is no different from any system of life. Every living system, at some stage, grows: a baby, a neighborhood, a company, a town, a forest, a grassland, a nation, a global set of biophysical and human processes, During the early phase, growth is dominated by entrepreneurial processes.  Early growth in a temperate forest, for example, sees saplings beginning to grow on a landscape during a period when entrepreneurial, pioneer species and physical forces dominate.  The system then continues to develop during an intermediate period with more diverse interacting species, leading to a period where a mature forest of a few species emerges that captures and stores the capital that has been accumulated.

But also, nearing the culmination of this first phase of growth and accumulation, resilience gradually decreases, new invaders are progressively resisted, and the system becomes locally stable but rigid, less resilient, with little latitude for innovation or for adapting to surprise. For example, the 800 year old trees of the Cathedral Grove in the Vancouver Island temperate rain forest stun the mind and entrance the spirit.  But its delights as a mature, temperate rain forest, immense and still, but singing with its small bits, also poise it on a sensitive edge of collapse. Remember the great windstorm of January 1997 that felled a number of giants? As a mature forest, it had become, and the survivors continue to be, an accident waiting to happen.  In other forests, the accident might be a fire, a windstorm or an insect or disease outbreak.

When collapse is triggered, then reorganization and renewal follows.  That is when power lays in the hands of the individual- plant, animal, person or small group. They can launch experiments, some of which can survive to determine the future. This is when resilience expands and where surprise and novelty can suddenly appear. The collapse is a kind of Schumpeterian creative destruction: certainly destructive, but much more interesting, also creative because it releases new opportunity that earlier was smothered. That might lead to the return of the original cycle from the memory of the old established by their seeds and saplings. Or more intriguingly, novelty might emerge as invasive species establish unexpected synergies with native species that fruitfully nucleate a new system, a new cycle.

That full cycle is what we call the Adaptive Cycle, one where there is a “front-loop” of growth, followed by a “back loop” of collapse and reorganization (see: Holling, C.S. and Lance H. Gunderson. 2002).

In terrestrial ecological systems, change during the front loop is incremental and learning is gradual and applied. It is essentially predictable.  In contrast, during the back loop, disorganization reigns, constraints are removed and probabilistic events can begin to emerge and synergize to nucleate the beginning of a new pathway. That back loop is faster in natural ecological systems than the front loop. It is the time when the individual – species or person- has the greatest potential influence. Learning can be dramatic, but it is chaotic and there are extensive unknowns.  The back loop is inherently unpredictable.

The front loop is a period of increasing efficiency, the back loop a period of reemerging resilience.


At times, the memory of the old system can be subverted by larger changes that, at a larger scale of cycles, have set new conditions that can flip biospheres into new states at smaller scales.  Going up and down such scales is what Panarchy adds to the Adaptive Cycle (see: Holling, C.S., Gunderson, L. H. and G.D. Peterson, 2002)

Global climate change did that 11,000 years ago, and established the conditions for new biospheres.  For example, much of Florida, and I would guess, Cedar Key, where we used to live, earlier was dry oak and grass savannas since so much of the water of the world was still trapped in ice sheets.  Shorelines were many kilometers from their present location, and the present Everglades were semi-arid lands.

Similarly, the southern edge of the present Boreal Forest was a mixed oak and beech savanna, waiting for the ice sheets to retreat and for the appearance of new species from the south that gradually, in a sequence of adaptive cycles, established the present interacting mix of spruce and fir, jack-pine, alders and birch.

When our view of the scale of a system in space and in time is expanded in this manner, new ranges of scale are perceived where ecosystems become seen as transient assemblages, that for a time- long for people, short for evolving systems- maintain persistent associations of species and local climate, to be ultimately replaced by new conditions that have emerged at a larger scale. Regional or global changes in climate intrude, and ultimately the earlier association breaks down to evolve to another.

Inside vs. Outside the System

Time and space scales in the boreal forest (from Peterson et al 1998. Ecosystems)

I have written this to this point inferring an Olympian view from inside the system, where we perceive with equal precision small and big elements, fast and slow ones and all in between. The fast cycling of leaves are perceived as precisely, with as much detail as the very slow millennial scale cycling of bioregions. The first occurs in days and months, and the other in centuries and hundreds of kilometers.  But standing outside the full system, in real life, we humans see partial chunks of that full spectrum. We perceive and live in a reduced scale range.  Some elements have a speed that are seen and reacted to immediately, some are slower and are seen roughly and periodically.  For long periods, as the slow elements on the inside change, that change is invisible to us on the outside.

Hence, within our constrained, but swinging rhythm, for long periods we see and act on principally the fast variables.  Changes in them dominate our actions, management and policies.  Think of the recent financial crisis that precipitated a global surge of surprise and the unknown in 2008/2009. That emerged because our society had slowly evolved a global economy based on a front loop concentration on fast investments through reduced financial regulation and monitoring and on extending globally.  Removing controls on an imaginary market was seen as allowing the market to solve any unexpected deviations without explicit attention.  Big instabilities could be forgotten. That is as much of a joke of limited economic theory as it is of myopic vision.

This focus on fast economic variables led to an emphasis on efficiency but also to the emergence of slowly increasing, hidden forces caused by diversified, subdivided and fragmented investments.  No one knew where they were, or what they cost. That eventually triggered a collapse that exposed the reality that slow, invisible changes had decreased the resilience of the world economy.  Globalization spread the collapse.  What was presumed to be efficient began to be realized as being myopic.

The Planet First, The People Next

Now that process is happening to biophysical elements, not just economic ones.  Humans have become a global force by also slowly increasing green house gas emissions, modifying the landscape and transforming the hydrosphere. We are, perhaps, at the beginning of the impact of those slow changes as climate warms because of human influences. Humans have become a global force. We are at the time of a large scale back loop when the individual – species or person- has the greatest potential influence. It is the global time when small is beautiful and local experiment most useful. Learning is chaotic and there are extensive unknowns.  The back loop, recall, is inherently unpredictable.

That is particularly evident in the Arctic now as we see the floating ice sheets dramatically contract and glaciers melt. Over the past decade, radar satellite imagery shows that the ice sheets on the Arctic Ocean have shrunk to 2/3 of their original extent and thickness. It is simply astonishing that the thickness can be measured within a few centimeters from space!

The image of change described earlier shows adaptive cycles arranged in structures across scales. This equally applies to a different set of ecological and physical processes at the top of the world, in the Arctic region.

In one orientation of a map of the top of the world, sitting on the pole, scanning the world above the Arctic Circle, we see Alaska at the top left, Canada on the left side, Greenland and Iceland on left bottom, Norway, Sweden, and Finland on the right bottom and Russia sprawling throughout the right side to the top.  Those nations represent the Arctic Council of eight nations. This is indeed a view from the top of the world.

The Arctic Ocean dominates the center of the map, while Northern Alaska, the Canadian Arctic archipelago and Greenland fringe the left side.  This is the region where the North West Passage was imagined in its alternate routes. This is a region, at smaller scales, of ocean passages, changing ocean currents, productive biotic hotspots, and Inuit communities with polar bears, beluga whales, seals and Arctic fox both at the top of the world and the top of the food network or chain. Even the subsurface topography is only crudely known as are the biotic interactions and the water chemistry.  The Beaufort Sea is now freshening as melt water creates the largest collection of fresh water in the world. The area is the focus of the International Polar Year (IPY) and, more specifically of Canada’s contribution: The Canada’s Three Oceans (C3O) project, led by Eddy Carmac (Carmac and Mclaughlin. 2011).

That project is dedicated to monitoring the Arctic from the northern Pacific through the Arctic into the northern Atlantic. Physical, chemical and biological attributes are sampled along a trajectory that can ultimately reveal, when repeated, the changes that occur as regional temperature increases.  Melting of floating ice sheets, increases in water acidity, and hints of impacts on some species in the trophic network are already evident.  The most obvious hints come from speculation concerning polar bears as they hunt for food on diminishing ice sheets.  But there are also hints from suspicions about planktonic species. Fish resources are likely to respond, and the knowledge needed to mange them is weak.

These observations reinforce the steps now underway to collect the kind of data, test speculations and develop models that are essential as change progresses on the top of the world.  The possibility of flips of ecological systems is very real, with surprises emerging that will have positive and negative consequences from a human perspective.  There are existing examples on land as permafrost melts; more will appear in the oceans.

The economic consequences for access to new fossil fuel sources and for ship movement through the Arctic are increasingly raising social, ecological and political issues that challenge and invite a cooperative regime of governance among the nations of the north. Perhaps Norway’s experience as one of the eight Arctic nations can help.  They have dealt with their own oil development in a way that recognizes present and future social needs. Perhaps those lessons are transferable to other Arctic nations.  At the moment, however, individual nations tend to launch competitive national initiatives to establish sovereignty, in preparation for international negotiations.

Next the People

These clear changes in the impacts of climate change suggest a need to expand national efforts to moderate climate change from present  international steps limiting greenhouse gas emissions, to new regional steps to adapt to existing and expected effects of changes in climate (for example, see Visbeck, 2008). Active Adaptive Management then becomes a priority, and the north the place to initiate and test the steps. Scientists, stakeholders and citizens are an integral part of the approach that has evolved. In the Arctic new scientific, social and political forces can combine for mutual benefit as an initiative leading to international action.

The polar program is therefore more than natural science. It is politics, history and social science as well.  Preeminently, the Inuit will be profoundly affected.

Historically, it is hard to imagine a more adaptive culture than that of the Inuit who lived on ice and land in the Arctic, prior to the appearance of Europeans. The Inuit and others hunted and lived over 4 000 years in ecological edges and hotspots, shifting away when climate became colder, back again when it got warmer.  Throughout, they adapted inventively for blunt survival.

The appearance of Europeans launched one transformation of these societies. Conversation now with those who live in and know the north feature telling stories of the isolating, shattering Residential Schools, of forced movement of Inuit groups torn from northern Quebec forests to Arctic deserts. The Churches, RCMP, and the government were blind, locked in their own paradigm of conquest and dominance. These are examples from our past that now are seen as representing beautifully intentioned narrowness and overwhelming ignorance (McGrath 2008).

Since then, the Inuit have experienced both crises and opportunities whose effects are barely grasped as settlements increasingly detach people and parts of their culture from the land and seascape.

The Arctic is now on the edge of a new sudden flip into a new regime caused by climatic, global economic and social causes. The Inuit’s adaptive capacity is one element that could help invent elements for the transition. Recent changes in political structures in northern Canada, Alaska and in Greenland open the opportunities. In addition, the best of integrative science at the scales now examined in Polar Studies is the other.  Extending the work of the International Polar Year and of the Three Canadian Oceans’ Project is therefore a prime opportunity.

A fundamental step for that extension is to join a new social initiative with existing scientific ones.  That could be done in a program that developed a consortium of local communities to monitor the physical, biological and social changes on land and at sea, using small vessels or snow machines owned by each community.

An early example of such a program is provided by Carmack and Macdonald (2008) who describe examples of indigenous knowledge and western science combining to give deeper insight than either alone. That local monitoring can combine to provide data and understanding at a next larger scale. And that in turn would combine with the IPY and 3CO programs for a full Arctic and costal assessment.

The Panarchy would be bridged and its different speeds perceived.  People would combine their talents, different experiences and histories as a stage for policy responses globally and regionally and for living locally.

That sounds nice, but how will we get people from eight different nations to cooperate, and have their governments act accordingly and not with selfish greed for resources?

Such an initiative would have its own local economic benefit as residents used their community vessel for other activities as well.  It would, for example, connect to the existing Canadian Rangers program, an existing network of local peoples with extraordinary skills in living on the land. There is deep knowledge of ecosystems and environment in every community of the Arctic and of the Pacific coast, knowledge drawn from the history and present experiences of the Inuit and First Nations. This new project would open a new direction to build on the deep identities indigenous peoples have slowly evolved in their earlier worlds. It could begin small and expand as naturally appropriate.

Imagine the potential for the Inuit kid or the young Haida native to develop the knowledge that can link his elders knowledge, with modern science, and economically viable harvesting, across scales.  A member of a true regional and global citizenship, who could recapture a disappearing identity.


Carmack, Eddy and Fiona McLaughlin. 2011. Towards recognition of physical and geochemical change in Subarctic and Arctic Seas. Progress in Oceanography. in press. (doi:10.1016/j.pocean.2011.02.007)

Carmack, Eddy and Robie Macdonald. 2008.  Water and ice-related phenomena in the Costal Region of the Beaufort Sea: Some parallels between native experience and western science. Arctic 61(3): 1-16.

Gunderson, L.H and Holling, C.S (eds) Panarchy: Understanding transformations in Human and Natural Systems . Island Press, Washington and London.

Holling, C. S., L.H. Gunderson and G.D. Peterson. 2002. Sustainability and Panarchies. In. Gunderson, L.H and Holling, C.S (eds) Panarchy: Understanding transformations in Human and Natural Systems . Island Press, Washington and London, Chapter 3, 63-102.

McGrath, M. 2006. The Long Exile. Alfred A. Knopf, Nerw York, 268 pp.

Visbeck, M. 2008. From climate assessment to climate services. Nature Geosciences, 1, 2-3. doi:10.1038/ngeo.2007.55

More PhD positions in Stockholm

There are three new PhD positions in hydrology at the Department of Physical Geography and Quaternary Geology, Stockholm University, pertaining to the following projects:

  1. Nutrient sources, retention-attenuation and transport in hydrological catchments under climate change (Ref# 463-39-10)
  2. The role of permafrost, hydrological and ecosystem shifts for arctic hydro-climatic interactions and carbon fluxes (Ref# 463-40-10)
  3. Determining and mapping spatial distributions and thawing rates of inland permafrost under climatic change in the arctic/sub-arctic (Ref# 463-41-10)

Click on the links for the complete announcements.  Deadlines for applications are May 23rd.

Arctic Futures ReOrient

In Nature Reports Climate Change, Keith Kloor reviews Cleo Paskal‘s new book Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map.  He writes:

Paskal convincingly argues that short-sighted domestic and foreign policies are already eroding “the West’s position in the global balance of power”. Exhibit A is the Arctic, where the US and EU are pushing for ‘global governance’ of the still-frozen Northwest Passage, a route expected to become a prized shipping channel to Asia and Europe with continued warming.
As melting Arctic sea ice opens a shipping channel through the Northwest Passage, China and Russia could forge economic ties to Canada and win major gains in trade.
Canada currently claims the Northwest Passage as part of its territorial waters, but this assertion is being contested by the US and European Union, which want it recognized as an international strait so that they can have unfettered access for their own commercial interests, such as oil and gas exploration. This standoff, Paskal suggests, could prod Canada to explore a strategic relationship with Russia, which has its own designs on the Arctic. Meanwhile, China is knocking at Canada’s door, eager to purchase a slice of the country’s abundant natural resources. In a ‘stateless’ Northwest Passage, Russia and China could end up being the big players, especially if they forge stronger economic ties to Canada. This potential development, Paskal argues, poses a long-term security risk to the EU and US.

To understand why the Northwest Passage looms large in global geopolitics, one need only look to China, which has built up a trading and shipping network through state-controlled companies that now manage such chokepoints as the Panama Canal. As Paskal explains, these chokepoints, where a wide flow of traffic is forced through a narrow alley, “are the sorts of things empires go to war over”. The Strait of Hormuz, which leads to the oil fields of the Persian Gulf, is a natural chokepoint. Others, such as the Panama Canal, are man-made. “The melting Arctic sea ice creates new chokepoints of global strategic importance,” asserts Paskal, cautioning those who minimize the Northwest Passage as a Canadian issue, “It is about as much of a Canadian issue as the Suez Canal is simply an Egyptian issue.”

Chinese chess

The melding of realpolitik and international relations with climate change is what makes Global Warring deserving of attention. Paskal spends much of the book walking the reader through the projected impacts of climate change — but in the context of countries manoeuvring for advantage in a world where imminent and drastic environmental change is taken for granted.

At the same time the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports that the prospect of a navigable Arctic has lead the Chinese government to fund more polar research.  The Financial Times writes in Exploring the openings created by Arctic melting.

“Because China’s economy is reliant on foreign trade, there are substantial commercial implications if shipping routes are shortened during the summer months each year,” the report said. It added that taking the northern route through an ice-free Arctic could shorten the trip from Shanghai to Hamburg by 6,400km compared with sailing through the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal. In addition, piracy-induced high insurance costs could be avoided.

Fire, climate change, and the reorganization of Arctic ecosystems

Alaskan nature writer Bill Sherwonit reports on Yale Environment 360 about the complex response of Arctic ecosystems to climate change in how Arctic Tundra is Being Lost As Far North Quickly Warms:

Researchers have known for years that the Arctic landscape is being transformed by rising temperatures. Now, scientists are amassing growing evidence that major events precipitated by warming — such as fires and the collapse of slopes caused by melting permafrost — are leading to the loss of tundra in the Arctic. The cold, dry, and treeless ecosystem — characterized by an extremely short growing season; underlying layers of frozen soil, or permafrost; and grasses, sedges, mosses, lichens, and berry plants — will eventually be replaced by shrub lands and even boreal forest, scientists forecast.

Much of the Arctic has experienced temperature increases of 3 to 5 degrees F in the past half-century and could see temperatures soar 10 degrees F above pre-industrial levels by 2100. University of Vermont professor Breck Bowden, a watershed specialist participating in a long-term study of the Alaskan tundra, said that such rapidly rising temperatures will mean that the “tundra as we imagine it today will largely be gone throughout the Arctic. It may take longer than 50 or even 100 years, but the inevitable direction is toward boreal forest or something like it.”

… In the course of studying caribou, Joly has also learned a great deal about the role of fire in “low,” or sub-Arctic, tundra, where for several decades at least it has been a much more significant factor than on the North Slope’s “high Arctic” landscape. About 9 percent of Alaska’s lower latitude tundra burned between 1950 and 2007, whereas only 7 percent of the North Slope caught fire during that period. That could change as the region warms and fires become more frequent farther north.

Continue reading

Methane in the Arctic

Charles Hanley writes about current methane research in the Arctic for associated press in Climate trouble may be bubbling up in far north

Pure methane, gas bubbling up from underwater vents, escaping into northern skies, adds to the global-warming gases accumulating in the atmosphere. And pure methane escaping in the massive amounts known to be locked in the Arctic permafrost and seabed would spell a climate catastrophe.

Is such an unlocking under way?

Researchers say air temperatures here in northwest Canada, in Siberia and elsewhere in the Arctic have risen more than 2.5 C (4.5 F) since 1970 — much faster than the global average. The summer thaw is reaching deeper into frozen soil, at a rate of 4 centimeters (1.5 inches) a year, and a further 7 C (13 F) temperature rise is possible this century, says the authoritative, U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

In 2007, air monitors detected a rise in methane concentrations in the atmosphere, apparently from far northern sources. Russian researchers in Siberia expressed alarm, warning of a potential surge in the powerful greenhouse gas, additional warming of several degrees, and unpredictable consequences for Earth’s climate.

Others say massive seeps of methane might take centuries. But the Russian scenario is disturbing enough to have led six U.S. national laboratories last year to launch a joint investigation of rapid methane release. And IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri in July asked his scientific network to focus on “abrupt, irreversible climate change” from thawing permafrost.