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Coronavirus Halts Arctic Climate Change Research

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Scientists testing water in the Arctic for ecology research. Arnulf Husmo / Getty Images

By Alex Matthews

Every year 150 climate scientists fly far into the wilderness and bore deep into Greenland's largest glacier. Their work is complicated and important. The EastGRIP project is trying to understand how ice streams underneath the glacier are pushing vast amounts of ice into the ocean, and how this contributes to rising sea levels. But this year the drills will be silent. The ice streams will go unmeasured.


The reason is the coronavirus. The fallout from measures to contain the outbreak have made the research impossible. Greenland is closed to foreigners. Its government is worried any outbreak could be particularly dangerous to its indigenous population and rapidly overwhelm its health services.

Even if the country were open, it just isn't practical to bring an international team of scientists together, 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) away from the nearest airport, in case one of them is sick. The transport planes that normally fly in the teams and resupply them have also been grounded. Nobody wants to be responsible for bringing small, isolated communities into contact with the virus.

Going Without Results

The scientists are missing out on a lot. They were hoping to complete the 2,660-meter (8,727-feet) hole they have been drilling for the past five years, and finally access the ice streams they've been hunting for.

"We were actually hoping to reach the bedrock this year, which is super exciting, as we are down where the ice stream flow really is important," explains Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, Professor of Ice, Climate and Earth at the University of Copenhagen and chairperson for EastGRIP's steering committee.

"How does this ice actually flow? That really is what we have been waiting for for five years, what was going to happen this year. All of that has now been put back. We will have to live without the results."

Damaged Equipment

When the team returns next year, it's data and understanding they will have lost. Another year of snow will have buried trenches and covered equipment, meaning they will spend more time repairing and replacing buildings and hardware.

It's a problem faced by Dr Ken Mankoff and the team he works with at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. They are examining the health of the ice sheets in Greenland and monitoring snowfall. They also have monitoring equipment in the field that could fail if they cannot reach it, leaving gaps in data that has been collected for decades.

"In the worst-case scenario there will be a 12-month gap," he says. "Some of that data can be filled in with satellites and remote sensing, other parts are unique and will be lost."

Junior Scientists' Careers Affected

Dahl-Jensen and Mankoff will have to wait until they can return to their respective sites and hope the loss of data won't upset their research too much. For now, both say they are happier remaining at home and keeping themselves, their teams and everyone else they would otherwise encounter safe.

But for younger scientists, those working on research with short-term funding, and those working towards academic qualifications on a timescale, the lack of results is a much bigger problem. The next generation of climate scientists will be affected.

"There are junior colleagues, and this will have a significant impact on their career if they cannot get the data for the project that they need to do their work," says Mankoff. "My attitude will not be shared by everybody else, and I doubt it is."

Most Productive Time of the Year

Someone who can relate is Dr Joran Moen, director of the University Center in Svalbard (UCIS) in Norway, the world's northernmost higher education institution. The school was shutdown and fieldwork cancelled, following orders from the Norwegian government. Around 70 students in Svalbard alone will be unable to complete fieldwork contributing to masters degrees or PhDs.

"The transition from March to June is a very important time for operations and for monitoring climate change in the area," he says. "We are in a part of the Arctic with a very dramatic change due to the temperature rapidly changing. It's a very good place to be to see how mankind can influence the climate and the effects of it."

"As for data gaps, the entire international community on Svalbard will have that problem, and of course that will also impact on our research. For students to be missing something like this in their research is a problem."

Waiting Game

Moen and the UCIS have made provisions for as much education as possible to continue. Classes have moved online and small, risk-free research trips are still being planned. Dahl-Jensen and Mankoff are waiting to see when they can reach their equipment, and planning how much extra work they may have to do in the snow.

Climate science is also waiting, to see when it will continue, and just how vital the missing data will be.

Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.

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By Tara Lohan

Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

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An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."