Falcons and other Arctic species are adjusting to manmade climate change and making some hard choices along the way.
Due to melting permafrost their cliff-side nests on the Yukon’s North Slope are collapsing, crushing eggs and killing the survival prospects of families that don’t adapt.
For the dozen or so scientists that have studied the Arctic during the two-year International Polar Year program, witnessing evolution in action is a once-in-an-eon chance to catch life in its defining struggle.
“It is exciting intellectually but at the same time it’s extremely worrisome from the point of view of conservation,” said scientist Don Reid. “Because we don’t know the adaptability of these organisms.”
Some animals will develop new climate niches; some might discover new food sources. Every species has latent genetic variations that allow it to adapt, and climate change may force those variations to come into play much faster in an ecosystem where it’s more pronounced.
“There are always changes in the ecosystem so organisms have to be highly adaptable in any case,” said Reid. “That adaptability will show itself in the next couple of decades here.”
Reid, who studied the relationship between Arctic prey and predators, feels the possibility of actual genetic change is more exciting than evolution through behavioural choices.
“Variability exists in an organism in species across individuals all the time,” said Reid. “It varies between organisms how much, but in other words, they always have the capability to be testing new circumstances because they have this variability.
“Then, all of a sudden, you might get an environmental change that makes that one piece of variability advantageous.”
Predators might find an ability to digest a new plant or a plant might depend on an ability to disburse seed in more suitable climates.
“Will we get a certain genetic strain of fish that will be able to withstand warmer temperatures?” said Reid. “We don’t know the answer to that question, but it’s certainly possible. And that’s where the intellectual excitement is, because you might actually see some of these things happening.”
Reid did his research in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region over the last two years with help from Yukon College students. They gathered insects, tagged migrating owls and observed the death battle between red and Arctic foxes.
Last Thursday was a chance for Reid’s team and other scientists to present their findings from the last two years. In a room at Yukon College, science lovers got a brief slideshow of what the polar year researchers have been up to.
Climate change was featured throughout the presentations. For example, hydrologist John Bailey studied invertebrate and fish life in Yukon rivers so that base date will be available to compare to the potential effects of climate change.
But the polar year program is also being used to show how humans can atone, somewhat, for our global impact. One of Reid’s projects was to set up plastic fences in the Arctic that would gather up drifting snow. He’s concerned that shrinking snow levels might hurt the lemmings who depend on burrowing in the winter.
While the lemming’s don’t need the extra housing help now, his experiment showed that, over one winter, lemmings did burrow in the deeper snow that built up against the fences.
Meanwhile, the very core of western science is changing.
“The new generation of researchers are starting to realize that, particularly in the North where we are so data sparse, we really don’t have that history of observation at a scientific level,” said Bob Van Dijken, the Yukon’s polar year co-ordinator.
First Nations knowledge is being used to understand long-term animal behaviour and the history of ecological change in the Arctic.
“There is this knowledge set and this living relationship with the land that’s been there for thousands of years to help us understand and help us fill the gaps,” said Van Dijken.
The scientific community hasn’t always been this open-minded.
“The new generation of researchers are much more willing to get engaged than some of the old style researchers who had been doing it for 30 or 40 years who are already set in their ways,” said Van Dijken. “In the ‘50s and ‘60s that probably wasn’t a priority and there certainly wasn’t that recognition of community knowledge or traditional knowledge.”
But a mix of better crosscultural understanding and the urgency of getting new knowledge before the land changes dramatically is forging this new relationship.
In a twist of irony, climate change is having an impact on one of humanity’s own tools for survival, knowledge.
“It’s like building any relationship, you may come in with assumptions,” said Van Dijken. “But it’s a lot about relationship building.”
Jodi Crewe gathered anecdotal data from the oral archives of the Vuntut Gwich’in community of Old Crow to help classify plant uses by the First Nation. A booklet has been completed with recipes and other plant uses.
That knowledge set is changing even today, said Crew.
“There is lots of information and lots of traditions that are passed on down to people, but there is an exchange of information among First Nation communities (today),” she said.
Communities with different vegetative habitats are still sharing plant uses, she said.
“Plant use isn’t just about making birch snowshoes or setting up traps using spruce,” said Crewe. “People are still really interested in medicinal properties, in the food value and the technical knowledge today.”
Southern Yukon First Nations are sharing plant-use knowledge with the Vuntut Gwich’in, she said.
While the industrialized world worries about the irrevocable harm we’ve done to the Earth, we need to keep in mind some changes are just natural.
“I don’t want to give the impression that everything here is a climate-change effect,” said Reid, who set out to test a hypothesis popular in Europe that red foxes are migrating north and wiping out Arctic foxes because of warming temperatures.
“The inference coming from Europe (that climate change is the cause) is contradicted by our results,” said Reid. His team repeated the European research and found that in the Western Arctic – where climate change is taking its toll – the fox relationship is not changing.
“Both animals are still on the North Slope in the same levels of abundance and distributions as they were 20 or 30 years ago,” said Reid.
“There is some kind of dynamic, but one isn’t taking over from the other.”
The red fox in Europe is changing its habitat on its own, without any prodding from climate change.
Contact James Munson at