Rapid ecosystem changes in the Arctic

New research has found dramatic ecosystem shifts in the Arctic due to climate change. The high Arctic is warming faster than any other region on earth.

There are explicit links between climate change and upheaval in biological systems in the Arctic, according to new research that has indicated rapid ecosystem shifts.

Led by the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at the University of Colorado, the research found dramatic shifts in the ecosystem of a remote archipelago in the Arctic Ocean.

The findings, based on core samples from lake sediments in East Svalbard, correlate with other studies, showing that the Arctic is warming faster than any other region on Earth.

East Svalbard is an almost inaccessible part of the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. According to study co-author Lineke Woelders, lake sediment core from a remote place can show ecology shifting in response to climate change without being masked by signals from human activity.

“The core let us see recent climate change and what it did to ecology there, far from people,” she said in a statement.

Every year, sediments settle on the bottom of lakes. By studying the layers left behind, it is possible to see evidence that helps reconstruct the ecology in and around the lake.

The researchers took a sediment sample 18 inches long and recording 125 years, from 1890 to 2015. They studied pollen grains within it to analyze which plants grew there, green algae to see the rate of new biomass produced, and the shells of single-celled algae, the most common form of phytoplankton, for information about water quality.

When combined with satellite images and temperature reconstructions from surrounding meterological stations, the results revealed a sudden shift in the ecosystem of the lake.

“From 1890 until 1980,” explained Woelders, “you saw only a small increase in the number of algae per gram. From the early 1990s onward, they just exploded. All of a sudden, we saw a hundred times more algae than a century before.”

She concluded that temperature shifts are the most likely cause of the ecosystem changes seen in the core, saying: “When you start realizing what you’re seeing and how fast things are changing, you get humbled. Okay, so this is what climate change is doing in the Arctic.”

Photo credit: Serena Tang/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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