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Climate Change in Polar Ecosystems, Report in Brief

Climate Change in Polar Ecosystems, Report in Brief

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Published by earthandlife
Climate change is already causing observable impacts on terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems in polar regions, and as climate continues to change, scientists expect these impacts to grow. However, the inherent complexity of ecosystems and the fact that they are subject to multiple stressors makes understanding the extent of future environmental change difficult. Scientists with expertise in Arctic, Antarctic, marine, and terrestrial environments came together at a recent National Research Council workshop to consider accomplishments in the field to date and identified five frontier questions that could help researchers gain a better understanding of the impact of climate change on polar ecosystems.
Climate change is already causing observable impacts on terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems in polar regions, and as climate continues to change, scientists expect these impacts to grow. However, the inherent complexity of ecosystems and the fact that they are subject to multiple stressors makes understanding the extent of future environmental change difficult. Scientists with expertise in Arctic, Antarctic, marine, and terrestrial environments came together at a recent National Research Council workshop to consider accomplishments in the field to date and identified five frontier questions that could help researchers gain a better understanding of the impact of climate change on polar ecosystems.

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Published by: earthandlife on May 10, 2011
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12/01/2011

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I
n recent years, scientists have found thatthe Earth’s polar regions are particularlyvulnerable to climate change. Observationaldata and climate models show that the poleshave warmed at substantially higher ratesthan the global average. Growing evidencereveals that recent climate warming has alreadysignicantly changed terrestrial, freshwater,and marine ecosystems in polar regions,and as climate continues to warm, scientistsexpect these impacts to increase. However,the inherent complexity of ecosystems makes predicting future environmental impacts achallenge. Understanding future ecosystemchange will require a multi-faceted approach todetermine the links between different compo-nents of the system.To investigate the steps needed to gain a better understanding of effects of climatechange on polar ecosystems, the Polar ResearchBoard of the National Research Council orga-nized an August 2010 workshop that broughttogether scientists with expertise in Arctic,Antarctic, marine, and terrestrial environments.Workshop participants considered accomplish-ments in the eld to date and identied gaps inknowledge and emerging research questions.These discussions allowed participants toidentify opportunities for progress toward agreater understanding of changing polar ecosystems. The participants identied vequestions that will lead to new frontiers of knowledge about climate change and polar ecosystem response.
The Frontier Questions
1.Willarapidlyshrinkingcryosphere(the frozenportionofEarth’ssurface)tip polarecosystemsintonewstates?
Although it is already known that polar regionsare warming faster than any other area of theglobe, workshop participants emphasized theneed to understand what happens as the amountof frozen ground, snow pack, glacial ice, and
Climate change is already causingobservable impacts on many polarecosystems, but the complexity of the systems and the fact that theyare subject to multiple stressorsmakes the prediction of futureenvironmental changes a chal-lenge. Scientists at a NationalResearch Council workshopidentied ve questions thatcould help researchers betterunderstand the impacts of climatechange on polar ecosystems.
Frontiers in Understanding ClimateChange and Polar Ecosystems
Credit: Sean Bonnette/National Science Foundation
An ecosystem is a system of living organisms(plants, animals, and microorganisms)interacting with each other and their physicalenvironment, for example the air, soil, water,rocks, and sunlight.*
* IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report.Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the FourthAssessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel onClimate Change [Core Writing Team, Pachauri, R.K andReisinger, A. (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 104 pp.
 
sea-ice at both poles begins to shrink in response towarming. For example, as ice, glaciers, and perma-frost melts, populations of some polar species maydecline, thus reducing biodiversity and leading to the potential extinction of important keystone species.Workshop participants also stressed the impor-tance of studying links between climate change andimpacts on Earth’s processes in order to identify“tipping points”—critical thresholds where a small perturbation in climate could push the ecosystemfrom one state to another. If potential tipping pointsare known or can be anticipated, scientists may beable to develop strategies to minimize the impactsof climate change on ecosystem properties.
2.Whatarethekeypolarecosystemprocessesthatwillbethe“rstresponders”toclimate forcing?
The many components of polar ecosystems are inex-tricably linked, and a disturbance to any part is likelyto cause cascading effects throughout the entiresystem. Workshop participants discussed the impor-tance of recognizing and quantifying the interactions between living organisms and their environmentsat all scales, rather than simply studying isolatedecosystem components, in order to accurately predicthow ecosystems will change as polar regions warm(or in some cases, cool). For example, the melting of sea ice will signicantly affect large mammals thatutilize polar marine ecosystems as habitats (for example, walruses).
3.Whatarethebi-directionalgatewaysand feedbacksbetweenthepolesandtheglobalclimatesystem?
Polar ecosystems have the potential to inuenceclimate and ecosystems at lower latitudes. For example, the melting of polar snow and ice willdecrease the amount of sunlight and heat reected back into the atmosphere, which in turn will alter global circulation of the atmosphere and ocean.Workshop participants identied a number of  processes and phenomena that may have suchfeedbacks to the global system, shown in Box 1.
4.Howisclimatechangealteringbiodiversityinpolarregionsandwhatwillbetheregionalandglobalimpacts?
Because polar species have evolved in cold tempera-tures, the rapid warming of the Arctic and Antarctichas the potential to affect biodiversity. Warmingcould cause shifts in habitats and the availability of food, and if species are unable to cope with theseconditions, their populations will decline and biodi-versity could decrease.For example, as climate warms the borealforest of North America, species that were previouslyrestricted to southern regions may move north, thusincreasing species competition in the northern areafor food and other essential resources, causing major ecosystem reorganization, and potentially leading tothe extinction of certain species. Warmer climatescould also increase the likelihood of forest res or insect infestations, further threatening biodiversity.In the Southern Ocean, which has been a coldand relatively stable marine habitat for at least8 million years, many species may not be able totolerate warming oceans. For example, Antarcticnotothenoid shes die at temperatures above4 degrees Celsius. Consequently, even small changesin ocean temperatures will produce drastic effectson marine population dynamics at both poles.
Box 1. Feedbacks Between the Poles andthe Global System
 SeaLevelRise
The melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheetswould produce about seven and 61 meters of sea-levelrise, respectively, with potentially catastrophic globalimpacts.
OceanCirculation
The increase in freshwater input to the sea caused bymelting ice could inuence ocean circulation, whichin turn affects global climate.
 BiomeShiftsandMigrationPatterns
Species that migrate between high and low latitudesmay be affected by changing polar ecosystemdynamics. For example, the rapid climate warmingoccurring in Alaska has increased the occurrence of forest res and insect infestations, leading to drasticchanges in forest ecosystems. This could change birdand mammal migration patterns with impacts on biodiversity.
TheAlbedoEffect 
Albedo is a measure of the reectivity of a surface.The albedo effect—changes in reectivity due tovariations in sea-ice and glacial-ice coverage, snowcover, and, in the Arctic, forest cover— is one of thereasons climate change is most keenly felt at the poles.Usually, the bright white snow-and-ice-coveredlandscape reects most sunlight back into space beforethe sun’s heat can be absorbed. But as climate warms,the snow and ice begin to melt, exposing the sea or land beneath. The darker-colored sea and land readilyabsorb sunlight, warming the landscape and causingeven more snow and ice to melt.
 
5.Howwillincreasesinhumanactivitiesintensifyecosystemimpactsinthepolarregions?
Access to polar regions has grown in recent yearsresulting in signicant increases in human activity.For example, as the number of ice-free days in theArctic climbs, shipping across northern routes ison the rise, industrial activity is increasing, andecotourism cruises to both the Arctic and Antarcticare growing in popularity. The potential impactsof such human activities in polar regions includedisturbances to wildlife, increased potential for oilspills, discharge of water and sewage from cruise
CaseStudy1:ArcticSea-iceRetreatandWalrusRelocation
Over the summer, female walruses migrate with their young to the Chukchi Sea between the United Statesand the Russian Far East. There, they forage for clamsand worms that live in ocean sediments, using oatingchunks of sea ice as resting platforms between dives.However, evidence from the United States GeologicalSurvey and from Russian scientists indicates that sea icecoverage in the Chukchi Sea is shrinking, forcing tensof thousands of walruses to come ashore in Alaska andRussia. Because walruses must now travel further fromland to reach prey elds, they are using more energy,leaving less energy available for growth. The evidencealso suggests walruses will have a progressively harder time nding sea ice platforms, which is expected to havea negative impact on walrus populations.This gure illustrates the connectivity among the earth system components and climate change, includingexamples of changes that could drive an ecosystem response.
Credit: K. Frey

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