Biodiversity Day: The Arctic
- Svalbard reindeer, Ny Alesund
May 22 is the UN official “International Day for Biological Diversity (IDB)”. Yes, I know, I frequently wonder about the value of these “International Day of…” whatever, but usually come to the conclusion that it’s always good to have reminders or pegs to draw attention to issues that don’t always make the headlines (last time on Migratory Bird day, see Ice Blog post). May 22 was chosen because it was the day, in 1992, when the text of the Convention on Biological Diversity was adopted in Nairobi.
Anyway, at least in our northern hemisphere, May is a good time to talk about biodiversity, as nature bursts into life (or creeps out gently with the temperatures in my part of Europe currently a little on the chilly side) after the winter rest. Like so many things in our world, this is also affected by climate change, with increasing variability in temperature and conditions having an impact on the seasons.
This May also sees the publication of the “Arctic Biodiversity Assessment“. It was released at the meeting of the Arctic Council in Kiruna on May 15th. Let me quote a little from the intro, which sums up why Arctic biodiversity is so special:
“The Arctic holds some of the most extreme habitats on Earth, with species and peoples that have adapted through biological and cultural evolution to its unique conditions. A homeland to some, and a harsh if not hostile environment to others, the Arctic is home to iconic animals such as polar bears Ursus maritimus, narwhals Monodon monoceros, caribou/reindeer Rangifer tarandus, muskoxen Ovibos moschatus, Arctic fox Alopex lagopus, ivory gull Pagophila eburnea and snowy owls Bubo scandiaca, as well as numerous microbes and invertebrates capable of living in extreme cold, and large intact landscapes and seascapes with little or no obvious sign of direct degradation from human activity. In addition to flora and fauna, the Arctic is known for the knowledge and ingenuity of Arctic peoples, who thanks to great adaptability have thrived amid ice, snow and winter darkness… The Arctic is made up of the world’s smallest ocean surrounded by a relatively narrow fringe of island and continental tundra. Extreme seasonality and permafrost, together with an abundance of freshwater habitats ranging from shallow tundra ponds fed by small streams to large deep lakes and rivers, determine the hydrology, biodiversity and general features of the Arctic’s terrestrial ecosystems. Seasonal and permanent sea ice are the defining features of the Arctic’s marine ecosystems.”
Biodiversity loss is happening at a frightening rate all over the globe, and the Arctic is no exception. On the contrary, with the climate there warming so much faster than the global average, Arctic biodiversity is under terrific pressure. As a contribution to halting the loss of biodiversity, the Arctic Council initiated the Arctic Biodiversity Assessment, consulting scientists on what could be done to alleviate pressures on Arctic biodiversity. The report gives an overview of the stress factors putting Arctic biodiversity and suggests possible actions to enhance biodiversity conservation.
The authors stress that there are substantial gaps in our knowledge of Arctic biodiversity. There is a huge need for continuing research.
Climate change is clearly a major problem. Melting ice, melting permafrost, warmer ocean – clearly such changes to some of the defining factors influence living conditions for flora and fauna too. With warming paradoxically making it easier to indulge in activities in the far north which could exacerbate climate change even further, the situation is complex and the time pressure huge.
Reports of this kind are usually very hard to read. I must commend the authors for the online presentation of this one. It’s divided into readable chapters and has some spectacular pictures. Some were taken by Lars Holst Hansen at Zackenberg, Greenland. I met and interviewed Lars at Zackenberg Station in north-eastern Greenland in 2009. The radio feature I made at that time is still very relevant and describes work at the remote research station, which monitors a wide range of environmental parameters, including of course, lots of biodiversity.
I went counting musk oxen with Lars while I was at the station. One of his photos of the “big hairy beasties” is actually being used on a stamp incidentally. Congratulations Lars for the brilliant picture and for this contribution to spreading the word about the need to protect the fragile Arctic environment and its biodiversity.
DateMay 22, 2013 | 1:36 pm
Arctic Council disappoints Greenpeace,WWF
Environment ngos have expressed disappointment at the outcome of the Arctic Council meeting in Kiruna on May 15th. Too little action and too slow, seems to be the consensus.
Alexander Shestakov, Director of WWF’s Global Arctic Programme said: “We are disappointed that the Council is not moving faster to address such urgent issues as preventing oil spills, and reducing the impacts of regional and global climate change.” Shestakov says the issues have been placed on the “back burner” for two years, and “the pace of change in the Arctic does not allow for a two year time-out.”
Greenpeace International senior policy advisor Ruth Davis said: “Throughout this meeting, the evidence from scientists and Indigenous Peoples has highlighted the devastating impacts of our fossil fuel addiction on the Arctic. Yet the Council seems in the thrall of business interests wishing to extract more oil and gas, whatever the costs to local people, wildlife and the future health of the planet”.
- Endangered species
Oil spill response
An oil spill response agreement was officially signed at the Kiruna meeting. WWF has official observer status and was involved in drafting the agreement. The organisation says it “will be watching to ensure that the agreement is effectively implemented”.
Greenpeace (whose request for observer status was turned down at the meeting) is highly critical of the “Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic Agreement”, signed in Kiruna. Greenpeace says “it includes no specific practical minimum standards that governments must adhere to, and has no provisions to hold companies liable for the full costs and damages of a spill should one occur”. Greenpeace had leaked the draft document back in February, saying it was “disappointingly weak”.
The other key issue environmentalists would like to have seen progress on is black carbon or soot. WWF says Russia blocked negotiations on an agreement to tackle black carbon, which is produced by burning diesel and other fuels and is blamed for increasing the melting of Arctic ice and snow.
Greenpeace sees a wide gap between the “firm recommendations from its (Arctic Council’s) own scientists based on the Council-commissioned reports on ocean acidification and the impact of climate change on biodiversity”, and the “lack of any meaningful action”. That gap between evidence and recommendations from scientists and real political action, it seems to me, becomes even clearer looking at the wider cause of climate change in the Arctic and around the globe – human-made emissions of greenhouse gases. Without rapid action from the main emitters (one is a member of the Arctic Council, another has just been given observer status), it seems more than likely the Arctic as we know it will not exist for much longer. As I have written here before – “you can’t have your ice and melt it“. Can you?
DateMay 17, 2013 | 2:29 pm
Canada poised to head Arctic Council
The Arctic Council is meeting in Kiruna in northern Sweden tomorrow (after a record summer sea ice melt and with CO2 emissions breaking the 400 ppm barrier). Canada will be taking over the Chair from Sweden. China, India, South Korea and Singapore are amongst the countries applying for permanent observer status. The EU wants the same, although some of its members are already represented either as members or permanent observers. Everybody wants a piece of the Arctic cake as climate change opens the once pristine ice desert to commercial exploitation.
Canada doesn’t have the reputation of being a top climate protector. I talked to Eilis Quinn, a journalist with Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic about the feeling in Canada and some of the options on the table. Thanks for sharing those insights Eilis. There will be an article on the website soon. Meanwhile, please have a listen to Eilis’ perspective.
DateMay 14, 2013 | 12:00 pm
Migratory Bird Day: Remember the Arctic!
This weekend, bird and nature-lovers around the world will be marking “World Migratory Bird Day“. This is a relatively new annual event in the global calendar of “special days”. It has only been celebrated since 2006. You may well be sceptical about the value of yet another day of “xyz”, quite simply because of the sheer number of them. This one was the brainchild of, amongst others, Bert Lenten, who is currently deputy-head of CMS, the Convention on Migratory Species. I have interviewed him on bird-related issues a few times in recent years. CMS, which is part of UNEP, has its headquarters here in Bonn, close to my Deutsche Welle office. The CMS agreement is also known as the Bonn Convention.
When I talked to Bert this week, he told me the idea of having a World Migratory Bird Day came up when bird flu first hit Europe in 2005. There was such a lot of panic and so many negative reactions to migratory birds, wrongly suspected of being a main cause of the outbreak, that Bert and some colleagues had the idea of reminding people once a year that birds are actually something positive.
Migratory birds, from large albatrosses, storks or geese to smaller terns, swallows or tiny sanderlings cover huge distances between their winter quarters and their breeding grounds every year. The Arctic is home to thousands of them every summer, when they fly up to breed. The Arctic tern is actually thought to hold the record for long-distance migration, flying between the Antarctic and the Arctic. I remember being attacked several times on Svalbard in spring when I advertently got too close to some of their nesting sites. No harm done, I hasten to add. I enjoyed watching their antics.
Now, with climate change affecting the Arctic much more drastically than the rest of the world, birds are finding conditions very different from they used to be. Ferdinand Spina is head of Science at Italy’s National Institute for Wildlife Protection and Research ISPRA, in Bologna, Italy. He is also in charge of the Italian bird ringing centre, and currently also Chair of the Scientific Council of CMS. I talked to him last week and he stressed that climate change is becoming one of the greatest threats to migratory birds. The Arctic is one of the most obvious illustrations.
“Birds are a very important component of wildlife in the Arctic. There are different species breeding in the Arctic. The Arctic is subject to huge risks due to global warming. It is crucially important that we conserve such a unique ecosystem in the world. Birds have adapted to living in the Arctic over millions of years of evolution, and it’s a unique physiological and feeding adaptation. And it is our duty to conserve the Arctic as one of the few if not the only ecosystems which is still relatively intact in the world. This is a major duty we have from all possible perspectives, including an ethical and moral duty, ” he says.
I couldn’t agree more, Fernando. We talked about the seasonal mismatch, when birds arrive too early or too late to find the insects they expect to encounter and need to feed their young. When I visited Zackenberg station in eastern Greenland in 2009, Lars Holst Hansen, the deputy station leader, told me the long-tailed skuas were not breeding because they rely on lemmings as prey. The lemmings were scarce because of changes in the snow cover.
Lars Holst Hansen is back in Zackenberg right now. He also takes some great wildlife photos, so I am happy to recommend a look at his site.
Jeroen Reneerkens is another regular visitor to Zackenberg, as he tracks the migration of Sanderlings between Africa and Greenland. A great project and an informative website!
Morten Rasch from the Arctic Environment Dept of Aarhus University in Denmark is the coordinator of one of the most ambitious ecological monitoring programmes in the Arctic. The Greenland Environment Monitoring Programme includes 2 stations, Zackenberg, which is in the High Arctic region and Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, in the “Lower” Arctic. Hansen and other members of Rasch’s teams monitor 3,500 different parameters in a cross-disciplinary project, combining biology, geology, glaciology, all aspects of research into the fragile eco-systems of the Arctic. At that time, he told me during an interview, ten years of monitoring had already come up with worrying results:
“We have experienced that temperature is increasing, we have experienced an increasing amount of extreme flooding events in the river, we have experienced that phenology of different species at the start-up of their growing season or the appearance of different insects for instance now comes at least 14 days earlier than when we started. And for some species, even one month earlier. And that’s a lot. You have to realise the entire growing season in these areas is only 3 months. When we start up at Zackenberg in late May, or the beginning of June, the ecosystem is completely covered in snow and more or less frozen, and when we leave, in normal years – or BEFORE climate change took over – then we left around 1st September and the ecosystem actually started to freeze up. So the entire biological ecosystem only has 3 months to reproduce and so on. And in relation to that, a movement in the start of the system between 14 days and one month – that’s a lot.”
I can’t write about birds and climate change in the Arctic without mentioning George Divoky, an ornithologist whose bird-monitoring has actually turned into climate-change monitoring on Cooper Island, off the coast of Barrow, Alaska. George looks after a colony of Black Guillemots and spends his summer on the island. In recent years, he has taken to putting up bear-proof nest boxes for the birds, because polar bears increasingly come to visit, as the melting of the sea ice has reduced their hunting options. He has also observed the presence of new types of birds which die not previously come this far north. His website is well worth following.
So, friends of the Arctic. Spare a thought for our feathered friends this weekend. They pollinate plants, control pests and insect populations – and give us that happy feeling of springtime we are enjoying in Bonn this weekend. I am reminded of a young “climate ambassador” in Alaska, flabbergasted to see that the glaciers we had come to observe were no longer visible from the Visitors’ Centre built for that purpose just a few years before. “Everything’s connected”, was his simple statement. Presumably that is why he has spent so much time developing low-carbon solutions for companies around the globe.
DateMay 10, 2013 | 1:46 pm
Arctic melt worries UN and White House
The UN weather agency WMO (World Meteorological Organisation) has confirmed that the Arctic’s sea ice melted at a record pace in 2012, the ninth-hottest year on record. With just 3.4 million square kilometres (1.32 million square miles) during the August to September melting season, the sea ice cover was a full 18 percent less than the previous low set in 2007. The WMO’s Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said this was a “disturbing sign of climate change”, and pointed to the link between climate change and extreme weather events.
Meanwhile, a special briefing was called at the White House to discuss the possibility of the Arctic becoming ice free in the summer within just TWO years. Nafeed Ahmed, director of the “Institute for Policy Research & Development” headlines his post for the “Guardian“: “White House warned on imminent Arctic ice death spiral”. He describes the meeting, including NASA’s acting chief scientist Gale Allen, the director of the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon as “the latest indication that US officials are increasingly concerned about the international and domestic security implications of climate change”.
10 Arctic specialists were called in to advise the US government, including marine scientist Professor Carlos Duarte, currently director of the Oceans Institute at the University of Western Australia. I met and interviewed Prof. Duarte back in 2011 at the Arctic Frontiers conference, when he worked with the Spanish Council for Scientific Research. At that time, he was already calling for urgent action and warning of the danger of “climate tipping points”, including the melt of the Arctic sea ice. His conclusions are based on research which was presented in an article in Nature Climate Change last year.
The West Australian newspaper quotes Prof. Duarte as saying the “snowballing situation would prove as hard to slow down as a runaway train”. He told the paper the ice melt was accelerating faster than any of the models could predict, and the prospect of an Arctic Ocean free of ice had been brought forward to 2015, compared with a prediction in 2007 that at least a third of the normal sea ice extent would remain in summer in 2100. When I spoke to him in 2011, the US navy was already assuming a date of 2050 and Duarte said he expected it to be even earlier.
Prof Duarte also warned of the increasing danger of melting methane. Let me quote a little from the interview:
DUARTE: “We know from the history of ice covering the planet along geological time scales that ice is strongly a non-linear element in the earth’s system. It’s one of the components that show very rapid, very abrupt changes and tipping points. So we expect that once the ice will be lost quickly from the Arctic and also from the shelves in Greenland, then other forces will be set in motion, and many forces will be set in motion by loss of ice. One of them is the release of methane hydrates from the shallow continental shelves, mostly around Siberia, and those are molecules of methane that are trapped into ice in the sediments of the continental shelves and in the permafrost on land. So if this ice melts, this methane can be released abruptly and suddenly. And deposits of methane trapped in the shallow sediments of the Arctic amount to about five times the greenhouse power that humans have set in motion through burning fossil fuels. So if this five times what we have released in 150 years is released within a few years, that would be detrimental to the climate system and it could lead to a very rapid warming, and could again set in motion other forces like increased freshwater discharge to the Arctic, which has already increased by 30 percent. And this involves a greater export of fresh water and buoyancy to the Atlantic, which may affect global circulation and global currents, and those in turn will affect regional climates also further south to the sub-Arctic region. Also, warmer temperatures are leading to dieback of the boreal forest and also the peat deposits in the boreal region are drying up to the extent that they can catch fire.”
(IRENE QUAILE: How close are we?)
DUARTE: “We very much know what the threshold and the tipping point for the release of methanes will be, because the methane is kept in the hydrates, deposits in the salty sediments by ice, frozen sediments, and we know the freezing point of salty sediments may be around minus 1 degree. So when the temperature of water in the summer goes well above freezing point, the hydrates will defrost and the methane will be released. So what we need to monitor is the temperature of the shallow waters in the Siberian shelf and other shallow waters in the Arctic, in the Canadian region as well, and see how close they’re getting to temperatures of 3 and 4 degrees, which will be those that will lead to melting of the hydrates.”
Scary? The interview, it seems, is as relevant as ever, the Professor’s warnings more urgent. I wonder what it feels like to be called in to the White House to brief the government of a country that is both a key player in the Arctic and a top emitter of the greenhouse gases that are causing the melt? On the one hand it must be satisfying for the scientists to know they are finally being heard. But there must also be some frustration about the extent of dangerous climate change that had to be set in motion first. Has the Arctic ice already reached a “tipping point”?
Let me close with another quote from that interview with Carlos Duarte:
DUARTE: “Unfortunately society is much more mobilised by opportunities than by risks. So the discourses and warnings of risks actually almost lead to inaction by society, whereas the sight of opportunities encourages society to set themselves in motion. So the opportunities for economic growth in the Arctic have dominated the discourse and the actions by society and policy makers. Those opportunities are new navigation routes across the Arctic, and the exploitation of oil, gas and fisheries, that were not accessible just a few years ago. The paradox in this is that the Arctic countries recognise that the forces that are improving access to these resources is actually climate change and that the reason for this climate change is the burning of fossil fuels by humans. Arctic nations themselves are responsible for 26% of the release of these greenhouse gases and are taking advantage of these opportunities, which will involve greater emissions of greenhouse gases. (…) I think there should be a balance between the economic growth these opportunities could bring about and the economic losses, they may bring about, which I don’t think have been quantified.”
DateMay 6, 2013 | 1:54 pm