How wildlife are adapting (or not) to the changing climate in the North Pole

Arctic researcher Maarten Loonen at TEDxVenlo (Photo: TEDxVenlo)

Arctic researcher Maarten Loonen at TEDxVenlo (Photo: TEDxVenlo)

For years, ecologist Maarten Loonen has studied the wildlife of Spitsbergen — an island that is part of the arctic archipelago of Svalbard (home of the famous global seed vault) in Norway.

At TEDxVenlo, Loonen shares how global warming has affected his research at Spitsbergen, bringing new species to the island and putting others at risk of extinction.

“I go to a little town, the most northerly town in the world,” he says, “this is Ny-Ålesund  — and there is an international community doing research. And one of the houses is my house, a little hut called The Netherlands Arctic Station. ”

Loonen in Ny-Ålesund (Photo: Maarten Loonen)

Loonen in Ny-Ålesund (Photo: Maarten Loonen)

Loonen has been studying wildlife populations at The Netherlands Arctic Station since the 1990s, and he’s seen the lives of the animals change drastically in recent years. “At the North Pole, we have already had a temperature increase of three degrees,” he says, “and in an area where it’s just around zero degrees, it’s a big difference.”

When habitats are changing, so must animals, says Loonen, and the habitat in Spitsbergen is changing a lot. Loonen references Blomstrandbreen, one of the disappearing glaciers in Svalbard:

A comparison of the landscape of the Blomstrandbreen glacier in Svalbard in 1918 and 2002 (Photo: Greenpeace Magazine)

A comparison of the landscape of the Blomstrandbreen glacier in Svalbard in 1918 and 2002 (Photo: Greenpeace Magazine)

Loonen’s area of expertise is the barnacle goose, a migratory bird that breeds in Svalbard. Every year, Loonen travels to Spitsbergen to track the geese through the hatching season, something that has changed over time: “Up to 2006, there wasn’t any change [in the time of geese hatching],” he says. “It was warming over there, but the birds didn’t change; it is difficult for migratory birds to know when to adapt. ” But 2006 “was an extreme year” that pushed the barnacle goose into adaptation. The birds began to lay their eggs one week earlier, a trend that continues now.

Loonens takes notes on a nest near the research center (Photo: Elise Biersma)

Loonen takes notes on a nest near the research center (Photo: Elise Biersma)

And hatching season isn’t the only thing that has changed for the birds; threats from predators are altered, too. One of the birds’ main predators, the arctic fox, is thriving in this new environment, Loonen says, because another species — the Svalbard reindeer — is not.

“[Now] in mid-winter, it starts to rain — a lot of rain — so what you see around the tundra is ten centimeters of ice because the rain drops on the frozen ground and the snow and it freezes immediately. In the last five years, we’ve had three years with more than ten centimeters of ice in winter on the tundra,” Loonen says.

Svalbard reindeer have taken this hard, as the herbivores can’t dig through ice to reach the plants that make up their diet. “They die off in large numbers,” Loonen says, “and if you’re an arctic fox in that area, you’re lucky, because when a reindeer is dead you have a lot of food.” Arctic foxes reap the benefits, he says, feeding on the abundant carcasses, as well as newly-hatched barnacle goslings.

One of the arctic foxes tracked by the team at the The Netherlands Arctic Station (Photo: Linda Bakken)

One of the arctic foxes tracked by the team at the The Netherlands Arctic Station (Photo: Linda Bakken)

“We will have losers and winners [in climate change adaptation],” Loonens says. He and his team are uncovering why.

To learn more, watch Loonen’s whole talk below:

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