Much focus has been given to the increasing climate change taking place at the poles, both the Arctic and Antarctica. However new research out of The Pennsylvania State University shows that such climate change-induced warming could very well end up affecting the poles geography and geology in different ways.
“The polar regions, particularly the Arctic, are warming faster than the rest of the world,” Michael N. Gooseff, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, told attendees Aug. 11, at the 96th annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Austin, Texas. “As a consequence, polar ecosystems respond directly to changes in the earth systems at the poles.”
The ‘why’ to this is not a challenging concept to grasp; the two locations are simply very different from one another.
Where the Arctic is made up of a lot of ice over water and some land mass, the majority of Antarctic is a continent covered by ice and snow. So the speed at which one will be affected and the changes that it will go through as a consequence of the increased warming will be different.
“Our focus on the north is in part because it is inhabited, but it is also because the ice there is more vulnerable,” said Gooseff. “Temperatures and snow and rain across the tundra shifts annually and seasonally. We know that fall is beginning later than it once did.”
Much of the Arctic has suffered terribly as a result of simply not being as robust as Antarctica. So much of the winter cover is based on sea ice, which has suffered dramatically as a result of warming temperatures.
Additionally, the permafrost – that layer of the ground which is supposed to remain frozen during the summer – has been slowly degraded by the warming. This degradation is causing the landscape to change into a boggy, uneven landscape which cannot reflect as much sunlight back into space, which only hastens the warming process.
Subsequent rains and snowmelt continue to erode the surface, carrying silt and sediment into nearby bodies of water, changing the paths of rivers and streams in the process.
“Algae, insects and fish all must deal with this increased level of sediments,” said Gooseff.
On top of this is the increased nutrients which are ending up in the water and reaching the rivers and streams. Because the soil has longer periods to be active, microbes are mineralizing nutrients for longer, but the plants aren’t using the excess, which then leaches into the rivers and streams.
“That is exactly what we are seeing,” said Gooseff. “In September and October, we see a substantial increase in nutrients in the water. Concentrations increase many times for nutrients such as nitrate and ammonium.”
While the increase in nutrients in the water is maybe only a neutral change, the degradation of the permafrost itself is going to cause great harm if estimations about the amount of carbon dioxide that is currently locked way inside are correct.
“It is estimated that the permafrost contains twice the amount of carbon that is currently in our atmosphere,” said Gooseff.
Release that into the atmosphere, and things start to get very tricky.