Climate Change

Abundant, late-melting snow leads to ‘reproductive failure’ never seen in Arctic: Study

Only few plants and animals were able to reproduce due to the extremely changing weather events last year

By DTE Staff
Published: Wednesday 16 October 2019
Arctic Fox. Photo: Getty Images

The effect of global warming is most evident in the Arctic than in any other region on the Earth. Besides experiencing extreme warming, the region is also facing retreating snow-cover — a phenomenon that has completely paralysed the ability of Arctic plants and animals to reproduce, according to a new study.

While individual species have had poor reproduction before, this is the first time such poor reproduction occurred across all levels of the ecosystem, according to the study published in the journal PLOS Biology on October 15, 2019. 

The snow precipitation was higher in most of the Arctic region in 2018 and did not melt fully until late summer — particularly in Northeast Greenland and at the research station of Zackenberg.

This resulted in complete reproductive failure ever encountered, showed the study. Only few plants and animals were able to reproduce due to the extremely changing weather events — abundant and late-melting snow.

Around 45 per cent of the landscape was covered in snow, till the end of July, when plant growth and animal reproduction usually peak. As a result, only few of the migratory shorebirds and the predatory long-tailed skua (Stercorarius longicaudus) occupied territories.

“No Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) cubs and almost no muskox (Ovibos moschatus) calves were observed. Also the numbers of adult muskox were low” the study showed. While among plants flowering occurred so late that seeds were unlikely to develop before the frost set in, it stated.

“One non-breeding year is hardly that bad for high-arctic species,” said lead author Niels Martin Schmidt from the Aarhus University in Denmark.

“The worrying perspective is that 2018 may offer a peep into the future, where increased climatic variability may push the arctic species to — and potentially beyond — their limits.

“Our study shows that climate change is more than ‘just’ warming, and that ecosystems may be hard hit by currently still rare but extreme events,” Schmidt added.

For the study, the team extensively monitored all components of the local ecosystem for more than 20 years, and compared life in the extreme year of 2018 to other, more ‘normal’, years.

With the increase in climatic variability, the risk of extreme events — retreating coastlines and storms that washed away the coastal permafrost — are also on the rise in the Arctic. 

The changes have previously affected polar bears, tundra vegetation and led to malnutrition in red knot shorebirds. Another study in 2016, led by University of Queensland, had predicted effect of climate change on breeding habitat of millions of migratory birds.

The researchers emphasised the need for more studies on the arctic ecosystems to understand the changing climate.

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