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Thousand year old Arctic ponds are disappearing due to global warming

Research has uncovered alarming evidence that high Arctic ponds, many which have been permanent bodies of water for thousands of years, are completely drying out during the polar summer. These shallow ponds, which dot the Arctic landscape, are important indicators of environment change and are especially susceptible to the effects of climate change because of their low water volume.

Marianne Douglas, Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Science and Director of the Canadian Circumpolar Institute at the University of Alberta, and John Smol, Professor of Biology at Queen’s University, studied these unique Arctic ponds for the past 24 years, collecting detailed data such as water quality and water levels from approximately 40 ponds. Collectively, this data represents the longest record of systematic limnological (the science of the properties of fresh water) monitoring from the high Arctic.

Over the 24 years the researchers spent monitoring the ponds, they recorded evidence of recent lower water levels and changes in water chemistry consistent with an increase in evaporation/precipitation ratios (E/P) and warmer temperatures. Until recently, the ponds of the study sites were permanent features of the landscape, but in early July 2006, because of warming trends in the Arctic, several of the main study ponds dried up completely, whereas others had dramatically reduced water levels.

“It was quite shocking to see some of our largest study ponds dry up by early summer,” said Douglas.

The ecological ramifications of these changes are likely severe and will be felt throughout the Arctic ecosystem, says Douglas. It would affect waterfowl habitat and breeding grounds, invertebrate population dynamics and food for insectivores and drinking water for animals, to name only a few.

“These surface water ponds are so important because they are often hotspots of biodiversity and production for microorganisms, plants and animals in this otherwise extreme terrestrial environment.” said Douglas.

In February 2007, Dr. Douglas and a group of researchers met with European VIPS to discuss Canada’s role in the climate-change discussion. Josh Ashton, England’s special representative for climate change at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Henry Derwent, director of climate, energy and environment risk at the UK Department for Environment, toured Canada to talk with scientists, industry representatives and policy-makers about global warming.

Kris Connor | alfa
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