The Arctic is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change, warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world. This has profound consequences for the wildlife that lives there, as well as for the people who depend on them. In this blog post, we will explore some of the effects of global warming on Arctic wildlife and what can be done to protect them.
Sea ice loss
One of the most visible impacts of global warming on Arctic wildlife is the loss of sea ice, which is critical for many species such as polar bears, walruses, seals, and narwhals. Sea ice provides a platform for hunting, resting, breeding, and migrating. It also reflects sunlight and helps regulate the climate.
According to WWF Arctic1, sea ice is projected to nearly disappear in the summer within a generation. This means that ice-dependent species will face increasing challenges to survive and reproduce. For example, polar bears could face starvation and reproductive failure even in far northern Canada by 21001. Walruses are forced to haul out on land in large numbers, where they are vulnerable to predators and stampedes1. Narwhals may lose their unique feeding habitats and become more exposed to human activities1.
Another impact of global warming on Arctic wildlife is the change in vegetation, which affects the food web and the habitat of many animals. As the Arctic becomes warmer and greener, shrubs are expanding and replacing mosses and lichens on the tundra1. This may benefit some herbivores such as moose and snowshoe hares, but it may also reduce the quality and availability of food for others such as caribou and muskoxen1. Warmer winter temperatures have also increased the layers of ice in snow, making it harder for these animals to dig up plants1.
Moreover, vegetation change may disrupt the timing and interactions between plants and pollinators, which are essential for plant reproduction and diversity. For instance, at Zackenberg research station in north-east Greenland, scientists found that important pollinating flies declined by 80% between 1996 and 20141, possibly due to a mismatch between plant flowering and pollinator flight activity.
A third impact of global warming on Arctic wildlife is the change in migration patterns, which affects the distribution and abundance of many species. As the climate changes, some animals may shift their ranges northward or to higher altitudes to find suitable conditions. For example, fish stocks in the Barents Sea are moving north at up to 160 kilometers per decade as a result of climate change1. This may have implications for the predators that rely on them, such as seabirds and marine mammals.
Other animals may face difficulties in completing their long-distance migrations due to altered environmental cues, habitat loss, or human disturbance. For example, shorebirds or waders are among the most diverse and threatened groups of birds on the Arctic tundra2. They migrate thousands of kilometers between their breeding grounds in the high latitudes and their wintering grounds in warmer regions. However, more than half of all Arctic shorebird species are declining2, partly due to habitat degradation along their migratory routes.
What can we do?
The impacts of global warming on Arctic wildlife are diverse, unpredictable, and significant. They pose serious threats to the survival and well-being of these animals, as well as to the ecological balance and cultural values of the region. However, there are also opportunities for action and adaptation.
One of the most urgent actions is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally, which is the main driver of climate change. This requires international cooperation and commitment from governments, businesses, and individuals. By limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, we can avoid some of the worst impacts on Arctic wildlife and ecosystems.
Another action is to conserve and restore habitats for Arctic wildlife, both on land and at sea. This includes protecting key areas from development, pollution, and overexploitation; restoring degraded habitats; and creating corridors and buffers for wildlife movement. This can help maintain biodiversity and ecosystem services, as well as support local livelihoods and cultures.
A third action is to monitor and research Arctic wildlife populations and trends, as well as their responses to climate change and other stressors. This can help improve our understanding and awareness of the challenges and opportunities facing these animals, and inform adaptive management and conservation strategies. This also requires collaboration and participation from scientists, governments, communities, and organizations.
Global warming is having a profound impact on Arctic wildlife, affecting their behavior, distribution, and survival. These impacts are not only detrimental to the animals themselves, but also to the people who depend on them and the planet as a whole. However, there is still hope and time to act. By reducing emissions, conserving habitats, and monitoring wildlife, we can help protect and preserve the Arctic and its wildlife for generations to come.