Dying Arctic Ecosystems act as Sentinels for Climate Change: Scientists from Various Universities add Warning Voices to Loss of Global Species

(March 11, Thunder Bay, ON) Scientists attending a national symposium on “The Ecological and Evolutionary Implications of Climate Change” at Lakehead University warn that the disappearance of Arctic ecosystems, and the invasion of non-native species, are sentinels of catastrophic changes under way in more southerly environments.  Dr. Stanley A. Boutin, University of Alberta, Dr. Marie-Josee Fortin, University of Toronto, Dr. John P. Smol, Queen’s University, Dr. Warwick F. Vincent, Université Laval, Dr. M. Alex Smith, University of Guelph, and Dr. Hugh J. MacIsaac, University of Windsor were panellists at the symposium.

Symposium organizer, Dr. Douglas Morris, states “the evidence that climate change is responsible for the disappearance or massive alteration of some northern ecosystems is overwhelming.  Earth’s surface temperature is rising, and most dramatically in the Arctic.  Research by Canada’s scientists documents that small lakes which typify Canada’s north, and that have existed for many thousands of years, have dried up over the span of a decade or so.  And the ecological communities that exist in other ponds have changed completely.  Wetlands may be especially at risk.”

Lakes and ponds are not the only Arctic ecosystems under stress.  Many freshwater systems have coexisted for millennia adjacent to their marine counterparts.  Walled in by ice dams, these unique freshwater “lagoons” are also disappearing at an alarming rate.  When the dams melt, the entire community dies as salt concentrations rise.  Even the ice itself is a habitat for unique living communities, and these are now on the brink of extinction.  At larger scales, melting sea ice allows species formerly restricted to the Pacific Ocean, access to the Atlantic.  Scientists are unable to predict how these species will alter ocean communities, but it is certainly cause for alarm.

Within Canada, Arctic marine ecosystems are threatened by invaders from the south.  Increased shipping from southern ports into the Arctic will release southern “migrants” as ships exchange ballast from one port to another.  Ballast is responsible for many of the serious ecological and economic problems that non-native species are creating in southern lakes.  New regulations requiring an exchange of freshwater for marine ballast while transoceanic ships are at sea are ineffective to prevent the future exchange of southern and northern marine species.

Change is normal, says Morris.  “But the pace of ecological changes associated with global warming is occurring far too rapidly for most populations to adapt.  Although there are a few examples where genetic differences are associated with climate change, there are many counterexamples where species unable to adapt have become extinct.  Although southern species can and will move north with climate change, there will be no place left for those unique species that live only in the north.  All of this is happening against a backdrop of unparalleled extinctions of the world’s biodiversity.”

What worries scientists the most, however, is the lack of action directed toward climate change and other ecological threats such as the global loss of the world’s species.  According to Morris and others, some of the blame lies with university curricula.  “How can we justify that the vast majority of our university graduates obtain more instruction in ecology and evolution during primary school than they do in four years of university?  Universities must work to ensure that their graduates, tomorrow’s leaders in business and politics, are literate in the problems that will dominate economic and political agendas for decades and centuries to come.”

Universities cannot accept all of the blame.  Any informed citizen knows that global warming is occurring and that it is caused by human activity.  The death of Arctic ecosystems may appear distant and unimportant to Canada’s southern residents.  People living in Toronto, Vancouver, and elsewhere in southern Canada need to recognize that Canada is an Arctic nation carved by glaciers less than 20,000 years ago.  The effects of climate change may be most dramatic in Canada’s north, but the same general processes are also at play across the nation, and around the world.  The real question is: will Canada’s leaders heed the warnings of its sentinels, and act while there is still time?


Media:  To interview Dr. Douglas Morris and other scientist panellists, please contact him directly at douglas.morris@lakeheadu.ca, 807-343-8162.

About Lakehead
Lakehead is a comprehensive university with a reputation for innovative programs and cutting-edge research. With a main campus located in Thunder Bay, Ontario and a campus in Orillia, Ontario, Lakehead has over 7,900 students and 2,250 faculty and staff, and is home to the west campus of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine. In 2006, Research Infosource Inc. named Lakehead University Canada's Research University of the Year in the undergraduate category. For more information on Lakehead University, visit www.lakeheadu.ca

Last updated March 16, 2009

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