State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Strange Bedfellows in the Climate Change Saga: The Quest for the Arctic Wolf

By Shahid Naeem, PhD

Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability and the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology

Truckers and non-truckers on the great Dalton Highway

ShahidWhen you travel northbound on Alaska’s famous Dalton Highway heading toward the Arctic Sea, the northern edge of the world, you carry a radio to communicate with the enormous rigs that roar along the road, the giant trucks made famous by the History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers. Radio messages between truckers and non-truckers are simple and polite. They let each other know when it’s safe to pass, if a wide load is coming your way, or if the conditions ahead are dangerous or treacherous – snow drifts, slush flows, avalanches, washouts and the like.

One senses, however, a tension between the enormous trucks and the others that travel the highway, the “non-truckers” as I call them. The big rigs are hauling material to and from the northern oil fields of Prudhoe Bay. Others on the road, the non-truckers, dwarfed by the rumbling powerful trucks, consist largely of the occasional tourist van taking visitors to have their photo taken at the sign that says “Arctic

Circle, Latitude 66o, 33’,” extreme bicyclists, some making the 20,000 mile trip to Terra del Fuego in Argentina, and the hefty extended-cab pickups of the Arctic researchers. Non-truckers are a small component of Dalton traffic, but as the road is partially federally

funded, it is open to anyone who wants to travel it.

Image credit: marcellusw - 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: marcellusw – 123RF Stock Photo

As I and my colleagues headed north on the Dalton Highway to conduct climate change research in the Alaskan tundra, I could not help but think how we were all, truckers and non-truckers, strange bedfellows on America’s most isolated road.

Wolves and wildlife

To be honest, though I was excited about the research and that was my main purpose, I was truly excited about the possibility of seeing Alaskan wildlife, especially a wolf. As a professor of ecology and the director of the Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability, the study of nature is my profession. My work is not about seeing wildlife but about understanding and preserving the living world so that we can improve human well-being. Like many others, however, I love seeing wildlife. When I see a plant or an animal in the wild, I am in awe of how it can survive the vagaries of nature. Every plant, animal, or microorganism must find a safe place to live, find food and water, and survive predation, disease and sometimes floods, fires and droughts. And they must survive with just the tools and the ecological “know-how” that they carry in their genes. Early naturalists were so inspired by wildlife, they sought to study it as a way to pay tribute to God who created life on Earth, but even without religion as a motivation, to see and learn about plants, animals and the massive numbers of ubiquitous and beneficial microorganisms is awe inspiring.

As a scientist, however, I must separate my personal fondness for nature and wildlife from my work, but when I take my hat off as a scientist and put on my hat as a fellow citizen, I confess to having a passion for traveling and seeing wildlife and nature whenever I can. I am, of course, not alone in this passion. The popular television programs such as those on the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet and the huge memberships of the Nature Conservancy, National Geographic, Audubon Society, Sierra Club and more, all speak to the popularity of nature.  In my own home town of New York City, the American Museum of Natural History, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the New York Botanical Garden have vast numbers of subscribers and endlessly popular exhibits of plants, animals and even microorganisms. Even extinct species, such as dinosaurs, attract many to the museum, though all they can see are fossils or artists’ reconstructions.

People love nature. No wonder that worldwide, ecotourism accounted for $77 billion dollars in 2007 and has been growing in double digits since. Alaska alone boasts over a billion dollars in ecotourism per year.

Interestingly, much of the growth in ecotourism has been the huge increase in people traveling to the Arctic and Antarctic to see climate change in action. I suppose the vans of tourists heading to the Arctic Circle sign on the Dalton highway is evidence of that, not to mention the many tourists I met in Fairbanks headed for Alaskan cruise vacations on the coast, but traveling overland to see Denali and the many majestic mountains and glaciers of Alaska and the boreal forest, famous for its magnificent trees and wildlife. All these tourists spend significant chunks of their income to see the North before its glaciers recede, snows melt and ecosystems fall apart as climate change takes its toll. Many hope to see polar bears on the coast before they go extinct as climate change increasingly takes its toll on one of our mightiest of beasts.

In comparison to the millions of ecotourists who travel the world at great expense to see nature, I’m lucky. My work has afforded me untold opportunities to see wildlife. My work focuses on environmental science, education and policy, but I often stop and look up from my work no matter where I am, whether in Kenya, China or at home in New York City, to admire the plants and animals around me. I have traveled the world and seen thousands of amazing plants and animals and, yes, because I have had access to microscopes and other technology, I’ve seen wild microorganisms too, such as beneficial bacteria in soil, lakes and ponds.

In spite of 20 years of traveling and seeing an incredible diversity of wildlife, a couple of years ago I realized I had never seen a wolf. As I travelled the Dalton, I hoped I would see one, slim though the probability was, and I was excited by the prospect of possibly seeing one at the Toolik Field Station where I would be for a week working with others on their climate change research. Looking for a wolf was not on the agenda, but if I were lucky, we would see one.

Earth’s thermostat

I was traveling to the station to consider collaborating with some arctic researchers on the impact of climate change on tundra biodiversity.  Often thought of as a wasteland of ice and snow, people forget that in summer the Arctic is a productive ecosystem bathed continuously in sunlight and filled with life. Its rich verdant greenery is made up of small willows, birches, mosses and myriad flowering plants. There are countless birds ranging from geese, owls and eagles to diminutive buntings. Most of the birds migrate enormous distances to the tundra, some from as far away as South Africa, all to take advantage of the summer bounty of Arctic ecosystems. Mammals abound, like shrews, voles, hares, ermine, lynx, brown bears, Dall sheep, caribou, moose, musk ox and of course, wolves. Thus, though I was officially there on science business, secretly I was hoping to see lots of Arctic wildlife, the wolf being tops on my list.

Toolik Field Station is a busy place in the summer, sometimes packed with up to 200 researchers at once. Why so much research on Alaskan ecosystems? What’s amazing about the tundra and surrounding habits is that the plants, animals and microorganisms, over the millennia, have removed carbon from the atmosphere and stored it in their soils. Nearly two trillion metric tons of carbon have been incorporated into the Arctic, more than half the carbon stored in all the world’s soils, and in places like the tundra, 95 percent of this carbon is in organic form, meaning much of it can be readily converted back into greenhouse gasses and returned to the atmosphere. Greenhouse gasses are drawn down from the atmosphere by ecosystems and stored as carbon compounds in soils and biomass, but these organic compounds can also be put back into the atmosphere through the respiration of the organisms that live there. Most worrisome is if an ecosystem is stressed, destroyed or otherwise disrupted, it may release vastly more greenhouse gasses than it can draw down, and that is not good when Earth is too warm.

It’s a good thing that ecosystems can both draw down and put back greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere – that’s how global climate can be regulated. If conditions are too warm, gasses can be drawn down, and if conditions are too cold, greenhouse gasses can be put back into the atmosphere. This is not to say that there is any kind of balance, but so long as carbon can go both ways, into and out of the atmosphere, there is a possibility for regulation, not unlike a giant thermostat, only with a sort of fuzzy set point. Such bio-geo-chemical processes, along with other major geological and chemical processes, are what has kept Earth, over billions of years, staying within the environmental conditions that sustain life. Yes, there have been times when it’s been so cold that there was close to no ice-free surface on Earth (snowball Earth) and times when it was so hot that there was nearly no ice anywhere on Earth (hothouse Earth), but we’ve never been like our neighbors, Venus or Mars, our other lifeless planets in our solar system.

In essence, life in Arctic habitats is a major part of the global carbon cycle that controls greenhouse gas concentrations. Plants, animals and microorganisms are essentially part of a gigantic thermostat that can control Earth’s temperature and the Arctic, because of all the carbon it stores and because of all its biodiversity, is a big player in this process.

There was much to do on this short trip, and most people were staying much longer than I was. It would be an intense visit, and I hoped to see and learn as much as I could about the research being conducted in the tundra — see if I could help and work to become a collaborator on different projects. I was excited, but also worried, as we drove north on the Dalton Highway amidst the giant rigs, ecotourists and fellow researchers. What were the challenges the Arctic research would face? What was happening to the tundra in the face of such dramatic climate change? Is the global thermostat threatened? And (privately), with only one week to visit, would I see a wolf?

(To be continued in Part II.)

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