‘This will transform the Arctic …’
By Summit Voice
FRISCO — The loss of Arctic sea ice will have ecosystem impacts as profound as those caused by Amazon deforestation, University of Montana scientist Mark Hebblewhite said after publishing a recent paper that outlines some of the potentially far-reaching consequences of the melting Arctic.
The paper, published Aug. 2 in Science, shows how dwindling ice will impact the marine food web and the marine mammals that depend on sea ice habitat, but also outlines other major ecological changes in adjacent land-based habitats and species also will occur because of warming oceans.
“In July 1991, when I was 18, I first stood on the sea ice of Hudson Bay. Little did I know that 20 years later Hudson Bay sea ice, and all the species that depend on it, would be gone nearly one month earlier each year because of human-induced climate change,” Hebblewhite said. ” The loss of sea ice will have effects that cascade far beyond the iconic polar bear. This will transform the Arctic.”
Impacts will extend to other mammals not thought of as ice-dependent, including Arctic fox populations that will become more genetically isolated. Pathogens like the phocine distemper virus (which affects seals) will pass more easily between currently separated species in Arctic Canada and changed migration patterns may increase parasites in caribou herds and increase their risk of drowning as they migrate across weakened ice.
Loss of sea ice also will cause changes to plant growth in areas such as Greenland, which influences food availability for wildlife like caribou. Hebblewhite said these vegetation changes are especially important because of how closely Arctic tundra is coupled with the marine system.
Most importantly, human activity in the area will increase. These impacts include on and off-shore mining exploration, increased shipping traffic through the once un-navigable Northwest Passage, and construction of new deep-sea ports. This increased activity is likely to bring increased oil spills and other disturbances never seen in the region.
The paper was co-authored by researchers from Pennsylvania State University, University of Alaska, University of Washington, University of British Columbia, University of California-Santa Cruz, University of Calgary, and University of Alberta and include Jedidiah Brodie, who received his Ph.D from UM’s Wildlife Biology Program and currently is an assistant professor of conservation ecology at the University of British Columbia.