The warming of the Arctic is most evident in the loss of ice on land and on the ocean, but changes in vegetation are also becoming more apparent – the Arctic is greening. Now a research team from ETH Zurich is investigating other factors that, in addition to the rise in temperature, support the spread of vegetation in Svalbard.
The highly specialized animal and plant species adapted to the extreme Arctic conditions suffer massively from climate change, which brings temperatures above 20°C to the Svalbard archipelago more and more often. Compared to the global average, the Arctic is warming three to four times faster. Ecosystems cannot keep up, with serious consequences for polar bears, foxes, reindeer, breeding birds, and several species of moss and lichen.
In parts of Svalbard, vegetation is already spreading, with not only native species increasing in biomass, but also non-native, invasive species from mid-latitudes encroaching on tundra ecosystems, greening the Arctic. Especially near settlements, where soils are nutrient-rich, non-native plant species have already gained ground on Spitsbergen and in other high Arctic regions. This could cause dramatic shifts in the composition of Arctic plant and microbial communities over time, with non-native species displacing native tundra vegetation.
To investigate the ecological processes behind the “Arctic greening”, three doctoral students from ETH Zurich took part in a four-week expedition to Svalbard in July. Above all, they want to find out what the changes in vegetation mean for nutrient cycles, plants and microbes, and better understand how fragile Arctic ecosystems might change in the future.
The three researchers share their impressions and findings during the expedition in a blog published on the SWI swissinfo.ch website. In their first blog post, they reported, among other things, record temperatures of about 16°C that they measured at their research sites in the field during the first few days – climate change first hand.
The three doctoral students, who are part of a twelve-member interdisciplinary research team with scientists from Norway and Switzerland, collected numerous samples of soils, plants and microorganisms in Svalbard, which will later be studied in the laboratory in Zurich. In fact, the research team believes that the changes in vegetation are not only related to warming, but also to changes in soil properties and microbial communities in the Arctic soil.
Julia Hager, PolarJournal