Climate change takes a heavy toll on the tundra, increasing the probability of extreme droughts. As a result, the frequency of fires in forests, bogs and even wetlands continues to rise. In addition, the northern areas of the tundra have also become more accessible and negatively impacted by human activities in recent years.
Two young ecologists from the University of Münster are studying the serious consequences fires can have for vegetation, soils and some endangered bird species. Even decades after the last fire event, impacts on plant communities are clearly visible. They will present their results at the ‘Ecology Across Borders’ conference in Ghent, Belgium this week.
An endangered oriental stork (Ciconia boyciana) left its nest just in time before the flames destroyed the nest a few minutes later.
Photo: Wieland Heim
PhD student Ramona Heim from Professor Norbert Hölzel’s working group at the Institute of Landscape Ecology, University of Münster, compared two study sites in northeastern Russia, where the last fires occurred 11 and more than 30 years ago. At the younger site, soil temperature and permafrost depth were significantly higher and lichen cover was much reduced. In contrast, moss, grass and herb species were more abundant compared to control sites nearby.
“Soil temperature at our older study site is no longer impacted by the fire, but even 30-odd years after the fire event, lichens have not completely recovered”, says Ramona Heim. “The dense cover of shrubs was a surprise. Usually, fires prevent the formation of dense shrub layers, but these results suggest that tundra fires could promote it instead”, she adds.
The change in vegetation structure has important long-term consequences for plant communities, microclimates and animals depending on certain plants or structures. For instance, reindeer need specific lichens in their diet, which have been found to be considerably less abundant even decades after a fire.
The surveys were conducted in cooperation with Andrey Yurtaev of the University of Tyumen and nine students from Russia and Germany.
Wieland Heim, another member of Prof. Hölzel’s working group, investigated the effects of the ever-increasing fires on breeding birds and plant communities in wetlands at Russia’s Muravioka Park. The diversity of birds and plants was recorded along 22 transects on areas that had burned last year.
While many plant species benefitted from the fires and the resulting niches and nutrients available, the diversity of bird species declined significantly. Birds, such as ground and reed breeders that rely on special microhabitats were among the losers.
“Since fires usually break out in spring during the breeding season and many birds do not produce a second brood, the expanding and more frequent fires can have serious consequences for their reproduction”, reports Wieland Heim.
The yellow-breasted bunting (Emberiza aureola) is one of particularly affected species. Historically known to cover habitats across northern Eurasia, their populations have plummeted by 90% in recent years. It was the first songbird species with a large range to be listed as 'critically endangered to extinction' in the IUCN Red List. The main reason for this massive decline in numbers is illegal bird-hunting in China. However, more frequent and more severe fires in its breeding habitat will put this species under additional pressure.
As a result of climate change and increasing development in the tundra, permafrost thaws earlier and deeper and organic layers dry out faster. This biomass can then ignite easily. After a fire, the insulating effect of the then burnt organic material is missing and consequently the albedo changes, i. e. the proportion of light reflected from the ground. Darker soils heat up more, causing their surface to dry out and permafrost to thaw even more, releasing further flammable organic material and leaking stored methane into the atmosphere.
Ramona and Wieland Heim are married and support each other’s research. Ramona Heim is mapping and determining plant communities. Wieland Heim is a passionate ornithologist and has been working in Muraviovka Park since 2011. Together, they have set themselves the task of investigating the causes and effects of fires in this sensitive permafrost region.
Both will present their work on Tuesday 12 December 2017 at the ‘Ecology Across Borders‘ conference.
This year’s annual meeting is jointly organised by the Gesellschaft für Ökologie (the Ecological Society of Germany, Switzerland and Austria, GfÖ, the British Ecological Society (BES) and Dutch-Flemish Ecological Society (NecoV), in association with the European Ecological Federation (EEF), bringing together 1,500 ecologists from around 60 countries to discuss the latest advances in ecological research across the whole discipline.
Notes to Editors
Links to ressources
For more information about this study and/or to arrange an interview with the authors, please contact:
Ramona Heim, Institute of Landscape Ecology, University of Münster, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Mobile: +49 (0) 178 8076 952,
Wieland Heim, Institute of Landscape Ecology, University of Münster, Email: email@example.com, Mobile: +49(0) 172 36 57 815
Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Norbert Hölzel, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research Group, Institute of Landscape Ecology, University of Münster, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, +49(0)251 83 33 994
For more information on the meeting, press access or to request high-resolution images, please contact:
Juliane Röder, Press Officer, Ecological Society of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, Email: email@example.com, Tel: +49 (0)6421 28 23381, Mobile: +49 (0)179 64 68 958
High-resolution images are available on request.
The ‘Joint Annual Meeting: Ecology Across Borders’ is taking place at ICC Ghent, Belgium from 11-14 December 2017. The full programme is available here:https://eventmobi.com/eab2017/
Follow the event on social media #EAB2017
Gesellschaft für Ökologie
The Gesellschaft für Ökologie e.V. (GfÖ) represents ecologists working on basic research, applied aspects and education, mostly from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. It was founded in 1970 to support exchange among ecologists working on a wide range of topics and positions. The diversity of the society’s over 1,150 members is reflected in the GfÖ’s specialist groups, publications and annual meetings. gfoe.org @GfOe_org
British Ecological Society
Founded in 1913, the British Ecological Society (BES) is the oldest ecological society in the world. The BES promotes the study of ecology through publishing a range of scientific literature, organising and sponsoring a wide variety of events, education initiatives and policy work. The society has over 6,000 members from nearly 130 different countries. britishecologicalsociety.org @BritishEcolSoc
Dutch-Flemish Ecological Society
The Dutch-Flemish Ecological Society (NecoV) was created by the merger of two ecological associations in the Dutch-Flemish language region, and aims to promote fundamental and applied ecology in the Netherlands and in Flanders, to promote national and international cooperation between ecologists, and to promote responsible management of the biosphere. NecoV organises meetings, symposia, seminars, courses, thematic working groups and other ecologically oriented activities. necov.org
European Ecological Federation
The European Ecological Federation (EEF) is the umbrella organisation representing the ecological societies within Europe and associated members. Instead of an individual membership, application process membership is granted automatically to members of a national society already represented in the EEF. The European Ecological Federation enables cooperation between ecological societies in order to promote the science of ecology in Europe. europeanecology.org @EuropeanEcology
Juliane Röder | idw - Informationsdienst Wissenschaft
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