Changes in Arctic Environments

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In the particularly fragile arctic environments of Northwest Siberia, resource extraction and a warming climate affect vegetation, permafrost, and energy budgets. Previous research has found that climate change occurs rapidly in the Arctic relative to many other regions and can be observed in declining sea ice, degradation of permafrost, and other phenomena. Furthermore, oil and gas extraction in the Arctic is also linked to changes in vegetation, permafrost, albedo, water cycles, and more. These changes create feedback loops and affect one another as well. For example, more vegetation coverage leads to lower albedo values and thus more pronounced heating from sunlight. Whereas previous work typically focused exclusively on the effects of climate change or resource extraction on Arctic environments, a new study by a team of scientists in both the United States and Russia works to integrate both approaches by using remote sensing and building upon previous research in the region. They hope to truly answer important questions regarding the future of these Arctic environments and stress the importance of fully understanding them.

The Russian Arctic experiences more economic activity than Alaska or other areas in the Arctic Circle, which means that Siberia (and specifically western Siberia where average temperatures are quickly rising) is the preferred place for this study. Nadym, a large city and site for natural gas, is chosen. In areas of the Nadym region without considerable anthropogenic effects, climate change is responsible for more vegetation. Tree or shrub expansion holds heat at the ground level rather than reflecting it away, which thaws permafrost and causes decomposition of organic matter held in the ground, releasing greenhouse gases. The region experienced an increase of 2°C compared to data from 1968. In areas of human activity and resource extraction, trees coverage declined over the course of the previous decades (as seen in satellite images) due not only to the direct effect of logging but due to the construction of roads, buildings, power lines, etc. As permafrost declines, waterways are modified and pre­existing lakes shrink. Elsewhere, new bodies of water are created by flooding due to road construction. Due to water’s capability to hold heat, these new lakes exacerbate the decline of permafrost there.


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Comparison of land cover types between 1968 Corona and 2006 Quickbird images, showing changes caused by land use. The upper pair shows decreased vegetation cover along the power lines and roads. The lower pair of images indicates accumulation of water (d) in a drained lake basin (c) due to construction of the road resulting in water upstream being channeled into this location.
Comparison of land cover types between 1968 Corona and 2006 Quickbird images, showing changes caused by land use. The upper pair shows decreased vegetation cover along the power lines and roads. The lower pair of images indicates accumulation of water (d) in a drained lake basin (c) due to construction of the road resulting in water upstream being channeled into this location. From: Epstein et al, 2015.

Climate change and direct anthropogenic impacts are forces that push and pull on the ecology, energy budget, and more, stressing the environment. There are so many feedback loops in these systems that play off one another. The landsat image series shows that human development causes ecological disturbance in those spaces that has these significant impacts discussed in the study which remain over the course of decades. Much of the planet’s untapped fossil fuel reserves are located in the Arctic, so this research must inform and promote further research into managing these environments.

Reference

Land cover and land use changes in the oil and gas regions of Northwestern Siberia under changing climatic conditions” by Q. Yu, H. Epstein, et al. 2015. Environmental Research Letters10:12.

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