Climate Change Taking A Toll On The Arctic

A review article in the journal Science this week summarizes the state of research on climate change in the Arctic. Among the findings — Arctic ecosystems have been severely disturbed. Lead author Eric Post, a biology professor at Penn State, discusses the report.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

Up next, the latest on climate change in the Arctic. A new review article this week gathers together what scientists know about the effects of climate change in the Arctic. And, in a nutshell, well, what can I tell you? You probably have guessed it. It doesn't look very good. The Arctic, as we know it, says the report and the lead author of the report, may soon be a thing of the past. According to the report, sea ice is diminishing rapidly, snow cover is declining, there's early melting and early start to the growing season. And because of this rapid change, many species, including polar bears, caribou, ringed seals are suffering. Also in danger, the native people who depend on the Arctic.

Joining me now to talk more about the work and whether there's any good news there. Is there any good news in this? He's the lead author, Eric Post, associate professor of biology at Penn State. He joins us by phone from State College. Thanks for being with us, Dr. Post.

Dr. ERIC POST (Associate Professor of Biology, Penn State University): Hello, Ira. Thanks for having me on the show. Well, to answer your first question - is there any good news - I guess, maybe the good news is if you like to eat muskox, then you'll have more to eat. They seem to be one of the species that's benefiting from climate change, at least from what we see in Greenland so far.

FLATOW: Just that. How - we talk about the Arctic thing, the fastest-changing region. Your study, I'm sure, must have supported that.

Dr. POST: Well, we've been hearing a lot of news about sea ice melting, glaciers melting, snow disappearing earlier from the landscape every year, and what we wanted to do in this paper is draw together as much information as we could find on the biological consequences of those sorts of abiotic changes. And yes, it turns out things are changing almost across the spectrum, both geographically in terms of across space within the Arctic, but also ecologically across taxonomic groups, whether you're talking about mammals or birds, invertebrates or vertebrates, migratory species, non-migratory species, things that live on land, things that live in freshwater, saltwater, it all seems to be - have been affected pretty dramatically over the last 20 to 30 years.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And give us some idea of some of the gross changes that you've seen.

Dr. POST: Well, for example, in the best-studied polar bear populations, there's been about a - almost a one-fourth decline in numbers just since the mid 1980s. Another pretty startling discovery that was just published recently that we reported on in this paper is that nearly all caribou populations across the Arctic are currently declining. So these are kind of - the first example is not so surprising because we know so much about polar bears. It's an iconic species and sort of the poster child of Arctic climate change. But the caribou example really surprised me personally, because it's a species that I'm very familiar with and have done work with over the last 20 years. And I expected that species among others to be an actual winner.

FLATOW: Yeah, more to eat, I would think.

Dr. POST: I'm sorry, what did you say?

FLATOW: I would say - I would think more vegetation to eat for them.

Dr. POST: Yeah. Well, it turns out that abundance of resource is not really a problem. There's - the world is green even in the Arctic. The question really is for how long is it green every year and when is it green and how does that overlap with your peak period of resource demand? And that seems to be the problem confronting caribou and other migratory species is that their seasonal cycle of migration to areas where they produce offspring and nourish their offspring, migration to those areas is keyed by light cue changes. It's like you can sense that spring is coming because the days are getting longer, so can they. And the hormonal trigger that response to that tells them it's time to head toward the area to have our babies. But, what's happening to resources in those same places is that they're responding to temperature changes on site. Now, of course, daylight changes are not sensitive to temperature, so when the animals like caribou are arriving in the areas, they're expecting to find a huge resource pulse. Essentially, what's happening is they're getting there too late. It's just like you deciding to leave your office for lunch at the same time every day, but the person who runs the restaurant or cafeteria that you're going to suddenly decides to change the opening hours. They open earlier and close earlier, and you arrive too late.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And I imagine, as people will ask, is there anything we can do to reverse this or slow it down?

Dr. POST: Reversing it is a tricky issue. I mean, that would require removing carbon from the atmosphere. I think slowing it down is more the approach we have to take. And, you know, what I tell students in my classes and what I tell my own kids is this is a matter of personal decision that we can make independently of policy changes. Sure, it's nice to try to affect policy if that's an interest to you, but you don't have to wait for policy to make personal decisions to reduce carbon emissions for example. I think at this point with the Arctic responding as dramatically and as quickly as it is, it's a matter of damage control.

FLATOW: Yeah. There were stories recently - I saw one in the New York Times this morning about opening actual sea lanes, commercial sea lanes for the first time…

Dr. POST: Sure.

FLATOW: …going through the Arctic. A German company is going to be sending -shipping through there.

Dr. POST: Yep. It's - you know, that has to be seen as a benefit to certain people, isn't it? I mean, it's not the case that vanishing sea ice is a negative across the board. It's certainly is for the species that are dependent upon it. And I've tried to place it in context by drawing an analogy to tropical rainforests. I mean, sea ice is like the tropical - is like the rainforest for the tropics. You have species that are absolutely dependent upon it for foraging, for hunting, for provisioning offspring, for damming and things like that. And as it disappears, essentially, they're left with no place to make a living.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And you sound like, you know, you sound very perturbed by this, and I can see why. You - does it depress you when these numbers come in?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. POST: Well, I think I'm a pretty optimistic person in general. You know, I'm not motivated in my own research in - by things like, you know, my personal outlook on life or living things.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. POST: I'm just a curious person by nature. So, I chose to work in the Arctic as a graduate student because, to me, it seemed like a very intriguing place. How can things make a living somewhere that's very cold most of the year and pretty dark about half the year as well. So, I don't really tend to let it discourage my own attitude. It's hard enough to leave your family behind and go live in a tent for three months or three weeks out of the year, you know? You need to keep going just to find answers to questions that interest you.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And the people - we've heard about the effects that the people who live in the Arctic regions - what it's having on them, mainly in terms of -a lot of it is in terms of soil erosion and their houses sinking and things like that.

Dr. POST: Yeah, you've heard that from Arctic Alaska, I suppose.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. POST: Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. What are the other things that you discover?

Dr. POST: Well, you know, I used to work for a couple of summers for the Greenland Home Rule Government and had an opportunity to travel to some pretty remote villages along the coast of Greenland and talk to hunters about cultural issues related to whaling and caribou hunting and things like that. And I still try to, in my active research, take time out to talk to people who live in the village near my study site.

Just before pulling the stakes up and leaving this summer, I asked some of the local hunters there what they thought about the situation, because there's one thing - there's one side of the issue which is my data collection and what it tells me, but I'd like to know what the local people who live there, think is going on. And what they told me is basically they have all but given up hope on hunting caribou in the area anymore because the numbers have declined sort of drastically. And they're pretty concerned about things like that, which are sort of indirect consequences of climate change.

They don't necessarily have anything to do with ice melting or coastlines eroding, it's more of a subtle effect that's sneaking up on the system, but definitely altering a lifestyle that they've been enjoyed for several thousands of years.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We're talking about the arctic warming this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Dr. Eric Post at Penn State University.

So where do you go next? Are you going to continue to go back and study this some more?

Dr. POST: Yeah. Definitely. I mean, I feel pretty satisfied with the answers we've gotten to questions - I mean, in terms of our success in answering questions that we posed a few years ago. But the thing with ecology is, the more you - the more research you do, the more questions open up. So I don't feel like we fully understand what's happening up there. And I'm getting more interested in things that are a little more complex, like the role animals such as muskox and caribou play in biosphere-atmosphere exchange of gases. So…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. POST: …how do animals like - that eat plants effect the exchange of carbon between the atmosphere and the biosphere, for example. That's something that we'll definitely be taking a very close look at over the next few years.

FLATOW: Well, thank you very much for taking time to be with us today.

Dr. POST: Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: And good luck back in your tent up there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. POST: Thank you.

FLATOW: Eric Post, associate professor of biology at Penn State University in State College, PA.

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