01 September 2011

Study shows risk to Arctic Refuge wildlife worse than originally thought, climate change to blame

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in its 51st year, has never faced such an uncertain future. Since the Arctic Refuge first obtained protective status in 1960, the region has experienced the effects of climate change beyond the natural—manifesting itself in a reduction in snow-covered areas, and increases in temperature twice the global average (3.9 degrees Fahrenheit in the Southern region of Alaska.) Since 1970, the growing season has increased by ten days, a result of a spring snow-melt that begins earlier each year (facts from the U.S. Global Change Research Program.)

The Arctic Refuge is particularly sensitive to the fluctuations caused by climate change; permafrost, ice flow, and winter dependent wildlife suffer catastrophic effects as a result. The fragile ecosystem of the Arctic maintains the rate of vegetation growth and decomposition, affecting the ability of its wildlife to locate sufficient food and water to sustain life. Warmer temperatures have set into motion a destructive chain of events—increasing forest fires (by 38% in the past half-century,) a growth in parasites, insect migration and invasive plant species are all consequences (EPA.gov.) The Defenders of Wildlife, a non-profit conservation organization founded in 1947, recently released findings that demonstrate a much greater threat to the wildlife of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge than previously estimated.

The Defenders of Wildlife report, Climate Change and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Which Species Are Most At Risk?, using research models from NatureServ (the world’s largest database of research on threatened ecological species,) have predicted a high risk to 16 species of Arctic wildlife as a result of climate change, including six species that are under “extreme” hazard: polar bear, arctic fox, musk ox, tundra vole, brown lemming, and the collared lemming. NatureServ & the Defenders of Wildlife classifies extreme as risk of disappearing entirely from the Arctic Refuge by 2050. Ten species, the lynx, wolverine, caribou, Dall sheep, Alaskan marmot, arctic ground squirrel, singing vole, northern bog lemming, tundra shrew and barren ground shrew, are classified as “highly vulnerable,” likely to have significant reduction in numbers by 2050.

NatureServe determines the severity of risk to these species with their Climate Change Vulnerability Index, based upon their individual habits that determine their sensitivity to ecological change. Those animals that have the greatest dependence on the cold and snow climate of the Arctic are at the greatest risk. For example, animal species that are dependent on the tundra land condition are at enormous risk. As the rain fall of the Arctic increases, this leads to a “freeze-thaw” cycle, ultimately destroying low-lying vegetation and collapsing burrows of smaller mammals.

The 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA,) conducted by the Arctic Council and the International Arctic Science Committee, a first of its kind report which drew upon data collected by 300 scientists and experts discussing the effect of climate change on the Arctic. From the report findings,
The Arctic is now experiencing some of the most rapid and severe climate change on Earth. Over the next 100 years, climate change is expected to accelerate, contributing to major physical, ecological, social, and economic changes, many of which have already begun. Changes in arctic climate will also affect the rest of the world through increased global warming and rising sea levels.
The key findings of the ACIA study corroborates the threatened status of species proposed by the Defenders of Wildlife, notably that the Arctic climate is warming at a much faster rate than initially thought, and will have consequences of a global scale through the reduction of wildlife and arctic sea ice. Specifically to the Arctic Refuge, the increasing thaw of permafrost, reduction in ice flow size, and growth of invasive plant species—primarily caused because of human intrusion, greenhouse gas emissions and harvesting of marine and land animals. None of these species of animals is more widely known for this perilous status as the polar bear.

The polar bear is one of the most dependent animals on arctic ice—relying upon the ice flow of the region to hunt, mate, sleep, and migrate with their young. Survival is impossible without the cyclical ice flow of the region, and as a result, the effects of climate change are most evident in the polar bear,
  • Canada’s Western Hudson Bay polar bear population have declined by over 20% since the late 1980s
  • The Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear population has steadily declined from 1,800 in the mid-1980s to 1,526 in 2006. Cub survival has declined, as has the average weight of males
  • Cannibalism, for the first time in recorded history, is now present in the polar bear species (from Polar Bears International)
As Arctic ice decreases, polar bears experience incredible hardships in survival—especially as we move closer to an ice-free summer in the Arctic. The only solution, as Defenders of Wildlife points out, is the significant reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (fossil fuels) on a global scale. This is, of course, more complicated than imagined. The Earth's atmosphere has a long memory for fossil fuels, and even if all emissions were to stop now, the levels already present in our atmosphere would continue to increase global warming for decades.

The oil industry of the North Slope region, adjacent to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, produces a massive contribution to greenhouse emission—an excess of 50,000 tons of nitrogen oxide. This number surpasses more than twice the amount of our nation’s capital, in addition to the 2-11 tons of carbon dioxide, and at least 24,000 tons of methane produced in North Slope oil production. Spills occur with disturbing regularity, nearly a “spill a day,” 1,600 spills from 1996 to 1999, (and these numbers are a decade old, from the Natural Resources Defense Council.) This doesn’t include pollution occurring from offshore drilling.

The Defenders of Wildlife report concludes with a three-point approach to address the grave risk to wildlife species in the Arctic Refuge:
  • Limit oil and gas exploration, with permanent prohibition of drilling and development in the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge
  • Maintain land access, throughout limiting development of oil production, to enable animal species to migrate to the tundra areas adjacent to the Arctic Refuge. This allows animal species greater accessibility to suitable habitat as climate change continues to transform the region
  • Invest greater research into monitoring the most vulnerable of animal species, which would allow a better understanding of how climate change affects their survival.
Will the US and international governments heed these warnings (have they yet?) How society responds to this report by the Defenders of Wildlife is a question mark. Reducing reliance on fossil fuels is a debate fraught with complexity—but there is no debate that the most significant action is one that is completely within the reach of every individual. It’s already beyond debate that cutting out animal agriculture will make an unequivocal impact on greenhouse emissions; drive less, and go vegan. Those who would argue otherwise just aren’t paying attention.

Nathan Rivas Nathan is a passionate animal advocate and vegan in the Seattle-area, who lives with a crazed dachshund, an enormous Maine coon and a judgemental short haired black cat. Nathan graduated with a Bachelors of Science (summa cum laude) from Northeastern University. He is preparing for his Masters of Science program in the fall and likes to make jokes that involve the chemical compound arsole (and is totally addicted to gardein).

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/madpai