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The ‘scary’ changes in northeast Greenland

By Daniel Grossman from Copenhagen

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Hans Meltofte–spry and with a carefully trimmed mustache and beard–chooses his words with care, as scientists do when imparting their research. It surprised me, therefore, that this eminent ornithologist told me in Copenhagen this week that he had found recent changes in northeast Greenland, “scary.”

Meltofte founded an ecological research base called Zackenberg in northeast Greenland. He stayed on as research director there for several years and conducted field research there for many more. He has visited Greenland every summer since the mid 1960s. Looking back on those first visits, he sees huge changes in the flora, fauna, and landscape of snow and ice on the big Arctic island today: “I can hardly recognize it,” he says.

Climate researchers have long predicted that global warming would heat polar areas first, causing the earliest detectable changes to the distribution and well-being of wildlife. Documenting temperature increases has been relatively simple with fixed weather stations and, recently, with orbiting satellites. The predictions have come true: In the last 150 years, Arctic temperatures have increased by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit, twice the global average. Identifying wildlife changes is more difficult. The Arctic includes Greenland, Iceland, and the tops of Asia, Europe and North America, not to mention the Arctic Ocean, which alone has an area twice that of Australia. A small cadre of committed scientists study this vast area, working mostly from a handful of rustic research bases. Meltofte proposed Zackenberg in the early 1990s as a site for taking the physical and biological pulse of the region for at least 50 years. After the base opened in 1995, scientists systematically monitored weather parameters such as sunlight, temperature, and rainfall. They tallied mammals such as lemmings and muskoxen, and birds such as plovers and owls. They measured plant growth.

I visited Zackenberg and Meltofte for several days back in 2003. Meltofte invited me to slog through sticky, shoreline mud for an early-morning bird survey. He advised me how to resuscitate my camera after I’d dunked it in a river. I was delighted with his invitation to visit him and his wife in their tidy apartment in northern Copenhagen during the Climate Conference. He’s 63 now. He no longer runs field observations, but leaves that to the generation of scientists he has mentored. However, he has just published a brick-thick book synthesizing the first ten years of research at Zackenberg.

“We were very lucky, Daniel,” he said, considering the timing of Zackenberg´s founding. In 1995, the vegetation, wildlife, and physical systems still seemed like they were when he first ventured there 30 years earlier. They remained stable for 5 to 7 years more, he says, “Then things went bananas.”

The orchestra of northeast Greenland life follows the metronomic cadence of freeze and thaw. Lemmings live it up while heavy snow cover protects them from predators such as foxes and the gull-like skua. Such predators, in contrast, dominate after the snow melts. Muskoxen, which are herbivores, similarly await summer snow melt, when fresh tundra vegetation appears. These rhythms have recently changed tempo. The snow-free season, which started June 23rd in 1995, now begins two weeks earlier. “That’s a hell of a lot,” says Meltofte, uncharacteristically blunt.

The lemming population used to explode every 4 years. No longer. Skuas, which feed on lemmings, breed far less frequently today than before. Meltofte expects vegetation from southern Greenland, better suited to the new conditions, to invade the valleys around Zackenberg that he’s studied for much of his adult life. The plants and animals that live there now might gradually shift northward also, but will eventually reach the island’s northernmost coast. There is no land north of that. Says Meltofte, “They will have nowhere to go.”

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Daniel Grossman has been a print journalist and radio and web producer for 20 years. He has reported from all seven continents including from within 800 miles of both the south and north poles. He has produced radio stories and documentaries on science and the environment for National Public Radio’s show Weekend Edition; Public Radio International’s show on the environment Living on Earth and news magazine, The World and many other international broadcasters. Among others, he has written for the New York Times, The Boston Globe, Discover, Audubon and Scientific American.