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Tracking Arctic climate change

September  17, 2012

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"At first it was exciting to see the polar bears and cubs plodding around our study sites.....then it became just darn right frustrating."

This summer was my sixth season conducting research in northwest Greenland (76° N, 68° W). I work near Thule Air Base along with my husband, Kurt Burnham, and his High Arctic Institute organization. Our main research focuses on the study of breeding birds in the region and documenting the long-term effect of climate change on these birds.

Claire Behnke, a senior biology major from Arlington Heights, Ill., joined our research team this summer.  Claire is the third Augustana student we have selected to work with us in Greenland. She learned how to handle various bird species, take blood samples and set traps, and during the school year she will be analyzing geographic data collected from 16 geolocators placed on black-legged kittiwakes in 2011.

This year marked another year of observable changes occurring in the Arctic. While those in mid-latitude locales might find it relatively easy to adapt to current climatic change or not feel like you are directly impacted by it, the inhabitants of the Arctic cannot escape the rapid pace of change. The High Arctic is experiencing rapid change right before our eyes. To discuss all the myriad changes occurring in the Arctic would take far too long here, but some highlights from our 2012 field season include:

Mosquitos — Although it's likely that mosquitos are not entirely new to the High Arctic, they historically have occurred in such small numbers they were largely unnoticeable. Since my first year in Greenland (2003), I have noticed a dramatic increase in the number of mosquitos present in northwest Greenland. They are no longer confined to just wetland areas, they are everywhere. Think mosquitos of northern Alaska!

Polar bears — Polar bears are not new to the Thule region, but their numbers appear to be increasing near the air base. In his 20 years of researching in Thule, my husband had never seen polar bears at any of his research sites. This year we saw seven.

At first it was exciting to see the polar bears and adorable cubs plodding around our study site. Then it became frustrating. We could not access all of our sites when we needed to, and on some islands little to no bird reproduction occurred because the bears consumed the eggs. Safety concerns for our crew were high. While climate change may not be the single culprit in this change, it does play a large role in that summer sea ice is no longer available for polar bears to hunt from.

Sea ice — In late August, the National Snow and Ice Data Center and NASA issued statements that the summer sea ice extent in the Arctic is the smallest ever recorded since satellite record keeping started in 1979. This record was reached even before the traditionally lowest month of September.

It is very likely the decrease will continue through September. We also notice similar changes in the Thule region. Because the majority of our sites can only be accessed by boat, we are dependent on weather and ice conditions. The boating season traditionally began in mid to late July. Now we can often start working on the water in late June.

Weather — Daily weather records since 1979 have shown that weather patterns in Thule are changing. Summer high temperatures are rising and winter low temperatures are generally not as cold as they once were. (This past winter was an exception.)

Precipitation patterns are also changing. This summer the air base recorded rainfall three times greater than normal in the month of July. Wet weather has a big impact on birds trying to breed.

While single observations and events do not constitute a trend nor are they proof of a large scale change, long-term observations from early explorers trying to reach the North Pole, multi-decade weather records from the air base and 20 years of observations from my colleagues at the High Arctic Institute do indeed highlight key environmental parameters that are changing.

Dr. Jennifer Burnham is associate professor of geography at Augustana College. She is a 1997 graduate of Augustana College, and her current research focuses on biogeography and the spatial distribution of methyl mercury in bird species of northwest Greenland. She also helps with research on the migratory pathways of Arctic Terns and Black-legged Kittiwakes tagged in Greenland. Dr. Burnham met her husband in Greenland when they were both conducting their Ph.D. research. They live in Orion, Ill., with two small sons who hope to someday tag along with their parents in Greenland. For additional pictures and information on our 2012 field season, check out: https://www.facebook.com/HighArcticInstitute or www.higharctic.org.