“The Arctic as we know it may be a thing of the past”, says Dr Eric Post, the leading scientist on the study “Ecological Dynamics Across the Arctic Associated with Recent Climate Change” recently published in Science Magazine. He also noted that, “It seems no matter where you look — on the ground, in the air, or in the water — we’re seeing signs of rapid change”.
While confirming that the species most dependent on sea ice (including walrus, seals, and polar bears) are at risk, the study did point out that in some cases other species are moving in and benefiting. For example, reindeer and red foxes are replacing caribou and Arctic foxes, as earlier snow melt creates new feeding grounds for these species while throwing off the natural birth cycles of arctic dwellers.
The study highlights that climate change is about change, and points out that “these rapid changes may be a bellwether of changes to come at lower latitudes, and have the potential to affect ecosystem services related to natural resources, food production, climate regulation, and cultural integrity.”
Unfortunately, the arctic is out of sight/out of mind for most people, and we seem to have become culturally immune to the impact of our changes on ecosystems, especially when they require us to change our behavior. Is monoculture creating disease and pest issues? Just add new chemical treatments and genetic modifications. Has hunting agriculture reduced wild Bison populations from 100 million to 500,000? Just add 100 million domesticated cattle. Collapsing salmon populations? Enter aquaculture. In each of these cases, natural systems have been replaced with ones that require human engineered environments, even if technological progress is no better than nature’s solutions.
In a few other cases, we have gotten lucky when we discovered that our “progress” was actually creating serious negative changes that were unfixable (think CFCs, acid rain, and DDT.) But we haven’t been faced with anything as potentially severe, far-reaching, and unpredictable as we’re facing now due to climate change. New disease vectors, the collapse of vital of and helpful species (both plant and animal), a total imbalance in predator/prey populations, permanent changes to complex ecosystems are all possible.
Red foxes and reindeer aren’t “winners”, they are precursors….early examples of the unanticipated consequences of our impact on nature. Over the next few months, we’ll have to make some tough decisions about a climate bill and our commitment in Copenhagen. We need to start by recognizing that we’ve been on an energy and climate path that’s causing significant changes to our planet. If we do, I for one still believe we can change course and avoid some of these consequences.
Otherwise, as Michael Pollan wrote in Botany of Desire, “Today’s gain in control over nature will be paid for by tomorrow’s new disorder.”