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Last year's extreme snowfall ruined breeding season for Arctic plants, animals

By Brooks Hays
Last year's extreme snowfall ruined breeding season for Arctic plants, animals
Record snows in parts of Greenland prevented many plants and animals from breeding, according to a new study. Photo by Pixabay/CC

Oct. 16 (UPI) -- These days, the Arctic is usually in the news for extreme heat and melting ice. But last winter, the region was buried by extreme snowfall, and new research suggests the deep drifts thwarted the reproductive success of plants and animals in northeast Greenland.

Scientists at the Zackenberg Research Station have been studying plants and animals in Northeast Greenland National Park for the last 20 years, which allowed them to compare this year's breeding season patterns -- which followed record snows -- to those that came before.

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Because the thick blanket of snow in the region failed to melt by summer, many plants and animals were prevented from breeding.

Most studies have focused on long-term climate and ecological changes in the region, but climate models suggest that the Arctic is likely to experience short-term volatility and extreme weather, in addition to rising air and water temperatures.

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Last winter, snow accumulated across much of the Arctic in record amounts. The totals were especially dramatic in northeast Greenland.

"This resulted in the most complete reproductive failure encountered in the terrestrial ecosystem during more than two decades of monitoring," researchers wrote in a new paper, published this week in the journal PLOS Biology.

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Scientists have previously observed breeding failure across one or two species, but never across an entire ecosystem, as was witnessed in northeast Greenland. The region is home to dozens of vulnerable species, including musk oxen, polar bears, walrus, Arctic fox, stoat, collared lemming and Arctic hare, as well as a variety of coastal birds.

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Every year, Arctic shorebirds called sanderlings make the trek from Africa to Greenland to mate and raise chicks.

"One non-breeding year is hardly that bad for high-arctic species," lead study author Niels Martin Schmidt, biologist at Aarhus University in Denmark, said in a news release. "The worrying perspective is that 2018 may offer a peep into the future, where increased climatic variability may push the arctic species to -- and potentially beyond -- their limits."

The disruption of the climate by increasing greenhouse gas emissions is expected to be especially dramatic near the poles, putting the Arctic and Antarctica at a greater risk of accelerated warming and extreme weather.

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"Our study shows that climate change is more than 'just' warming, and that ecosystems may be hard hit by currently still rare but extreme events," said Schmidt. "What it also brings out is the unparalleled value of long-term observations of the Arctic. Only by keeping an eye on full arctic ecosystems can we understand the havoc brought by the changing climate."

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