U alum addresses warming in Arctic

Arctic species in danger as a result of widespread melting of sea ice.

Emily Mongan

 

The Arctic serves as a gauge in global warming trends for the rest of the world, prompting researchers to study and speak about the impact of warming on plant and animal species.

A lecture by Eric Post on the “Vanishing Arctic” presented Monday on the St. Paul campus at the University of Minnesota explored the potential ecological effects of climate change.

Post, a Penn State biology professor and University alumnus, said the title was supposed to provoke the more-than 100 University students, faculty and public that showed up.

 “I have a feeling we’re often too cautious in our statements relating to climate change,” he said.

The Earth’s temperature has been steadily increasing over the years, due in part to human activity and the burning of fossil fuels. This climate change has been most evident in the Arctic, where temperatures have increased at twice the rate of the rest of the planet.

Over the past 100 years, the Earth’s temperature has increased an average of 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit — an increase that might not seem substantial but has led to a variety of changes to Earth’s environment, said Scott St. George, a professor in the Department of Geography at the University.

The Arctic, an area considered by some researchers to be the “epicenter” of global climate change, has experienced widespread melting of sea ice and fluctuation of native species as a result of rising temperatures.

Some species, such as trees and shrubs, have seen an increase over the past decades, while others, like polar bears, have experienced a drastic decrease in population size.

An estimated 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears remain in the Arctic, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The decreasing population size places polar bears on the IUCN’s “Red List of Threatened Species,” meaning they are vulnerable and have potential for extinction.

This decrease in polar bear population can be attributed to the loss of sea ice in the Arctic, which is crucial for bears to hunt for food each fall.

St. George explained the “big changes” seen in sea ice behavior in recent years can have an impact on everything from native species to maritime shipping routes.

“The ice only lasts a season instead of a few years,” St. George said.

Post told the crowd that the cover of sea ice across the Arctic experiences a yearly decrease in area roughly the size of “two New Jerseys.”

While it may go largely unacknowledged by many people, this decrease in sea ice impacts the environment as much as mass deforestation in tropical climates, Post said.  It also influences the migratory patterns of animals that depend on the ice for hunting, migrating and reproduction.

“Migration in animals changes, and they have to move to other places,” said Katherine Klink, a University professor specializing in climate variability and environmental science.

Klink said when temperatures warm and sea ice disappears, animals tend to migrate to higher altitudes. This migration often increases the risk of extinction for a species.

These migratory changes have been tracked by Post, who has spent more than 20 years in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, studying grazing habits of caribou and musk oxen.

Over the years, Post has seen a correlation between plant flowering times and caribou births, suggesting that the Arctic warming will have a negative impact on the amount of caribou offspring over time.

Post will continue the discussion of the ecological costs of global warming with a lunch seminar about the community’s response to climate change dynamics at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday in Room 144 of McNeal Hall.