Life on the frontier

66°33′47.1″ north of the Equator runs the Arctic Circle. It metaphysically slices through eight countries and covers roughly 4% of the earth’s surface. It’s also warming nearly twice as fast the rest of the world. This is having an impact on the region’s people and animals, as well as the landscape itself. And this is where Professor Anders Angerbjörn and PhD student Rasmus Erlandsson come in. They spend most of their time researching the lives of the Scandinavian Arctic fox, but last summer they travelled to Russia with the Arctic Islands Project to research changes in the Arctic more broadly. The hope is to use findings from many different arctic regions to help predict future changes.

UNESCO World Heritage Site, Wrangel Island, was home-base for Professor Anders Angerbjörn. It’s a large island – 7,900km2 – with vast coastal plains and mountains reaching above 1,000m. It’s perennially covered in permafrost and periodically covered in a blanket of snow. But during the short summer season – when Anders was visiting – the snow melts and wildflowers spring into bloom, making the most of the midnight sun before winter returns. It’s home to a large community of polar bears. A community that Anders met at close quarters. “The first polar bear meeting was quite funny, actually,” explains Anders. “We had radio hours at 9pm every evening, so I was just outside the cabin talking on the radio to Rasmus. ‘Hang on a second,’ I said to him, as I looked through my binoculars. ‘I think there’s a polar bear coming down the beach.’ Rasmus’s reply was: ‘and that was the last thing I heard from my supervisor...’.”

Polar bear at Wrangel Island

Unlike in other polar bear countries, Anders and the other scientists were not allowed to carry guns to defend themselves. Instead they had long, flimsy sticks and a flare. “But we weren’t worried. We’re not the worried types. If we were, we wouldn’t have gone to Wrangel Island.” Although this may sound blasé, the polar bears very much kept their distance. “They are more curious than anything. And anyway, we weren’t there to study the polar bears. So they were more of a nuisance actually,” says Anders.

Speaking of nuisances, Rasmus’s experience sounds a lot safer – on his mainland location in the Chaun Delta there are no polar bears. But in terms of nuisance animals, Rasmus definitely pulled the short straw. “The landscapes are very different at the two sites,” he says. “Anders went to the fancy island with all the mammoth bones, polar bears and no mosquitoes, while I went to the mosquito-infested swamps. So we have two very different stories.” But it is difference that gives this research strength.

Boats at Wrangel Island, research for the arctic islands project

The Arctic Islands Project has a climate change aspect to it. “We’re seeing a warming effect across the Arctic region and this is having knock-on effects for the region’s boreal mammals, for example with the red fox now competing with the arctic fox,” explains Anders. “We think this knock-on effect will continue up to the arctic ocean but it will halt there. Then we will only have true arctic ecosystems on the islands. We believe this has been the case in previous warming events too.” To test this hypothesis, the teams are comparing two pairs of sites: island and mainland and in summer 2017 the locations were Wrangel Island and the Chaun Delta. “We were there to look at the flora and fauna and take sediment samples from the permafrost. We hope to be able to date the different samples and use DNA to see the species composition 2,000, 5,000 and 12,000 years ago. We can then test the idea of whether the arctic islands really are refuges for artic species. This will have a very strong influence on how we treat the arctic islands today.”

The project is on-going and it’ll be several years before all the results are analysed and conclusions drawn. But the goal is to be able to make predictions. “The idea is that the climate is the driver of these changes,” says Anders. “So we’re trying to figure out the impacts and what to expect.”

Gas drilling in the arctic has brought new wealth to local societies, but it’s impacting the wildlife and the possibility for the indigenous people to keep their reindeer. “It’s complicated,” says Anders. “Quite often you think climate change is linear, but it’s not. It can be bouncing back. With melting arctic ice, walruses will have problems to give birth on the ice for example. This is good news for polar bears: walrus will gather on Wrangle Island so polar bears can prey on walrus calves. In this event the polar bears will do well. The walrus, not so much. However, as this continues and the walrus population crashes completely polar bears will start suffering. In the media you always see this linear warming argument. It’s always less, less, less. But it’s not so simple. Things are interrelated. And there is, of course, a difference between climate and weather.”

Arctic fox, photo by Even Hønsen Agerup

What about the arctic fox? How does this research relate to Anders’s and Rasmus’s ‘day jobs’ in Sweden? It’s this idea of comparison, spotting the differences in order to draw future conclusions that connects the Arctic Fox Project here in Scandinavia to the Arctic Islands Project in the wider arctic area. Anders and Rasmus already see changes in the lifestyles of Scandinavian arctic foxes. They see how the changing landscape – shrubs replacing vast open spaces – shifting patterns in small rodent communities, and the invasion of red foxes, will continue to threaten the future of the Scandinavian arctic fox. And as the climate continues to warm, the arctic continues to recede, islands like Wrangel Island may become the last refuges for the arctic fox.

Images: Rasmus Erlandsson, Anders Angerbjörn, Melissa Schäfer & Even Hønsen Agerup.


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