Fram Forum 2017

Page 20




Virve Ravolainen and Åshild Ønvik Pedersen // Norwegian Polar Institute Ingibjörg Svala Jónsdóttir // University Centre in Svalbard and University of Iceland Mads Forchhammer // University Centre in Svalbard Eeva Soininen // UiT The Arctic University of Norway René van der Wal // University of Aberdeen

The Green Arctic – Plants as cornerstones in terrestrial ecosystems Svalbard’s arctic landscape is characterised by glaciers, snow, barren mountains, and rocky soil. It’s a tough place for all living things, yet many creatures thrive here. They owe their survival to hardy plants: mosses, grasses, and herbs are the cornerstone of Svalbard’s terrestrial ecosystem.


uch of Svalbard is an arctic desert. Satellite photos show very little vegetation, and visitors must look close to admire the small, scattered flowers that hunker down among stones and gravel. But this land in the far north has green spots. We find small patches of productive vegetation, with a diverse flora of grasses, herbs, and mosses. These plants are crucially important for the successful functioning of the entire land-based system. Without them, there would be no reindeer, no ptarmigan, no geese. The permafrost would thaw more easily and erosion would increase. Plants are the foundation on which the terrestrial food web rests. In our research, we focus on these green “cornerstones” and factors that could alter their resilience and function, with the aim of making plant monitoring both efficient and relevant for management of the ecosystem as a whole. WHY MONITOR THE GREEN STUFF? At present, the life of a plant in Svalbard is not rosy. Weather conditions in both summer and winter vary more than they used to. The summers are warmer but also either wetter or drier than they were a few decades ago. The winters are not as cold as before, and

it rains more. People come in large and small hordes and their boots leave marks on the vegetation. Thousands of year-round residents (reindeer and ptarmigan) need to eat, and the same goes for a rapidly growing number of summer visitors (geese). In 1965, about 15 000 pink-footed geese came to Svalbard every year to breed; by 2016 their numbers had increased almost fivefold. Yet, cliff-breeding seabirds are declining, and thereby the amounts of natural fertiliser raining down from numerous cliffs. According to the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act, Svalbard’s natural environment is to be preserved as untouched by humans as possible. The knowledge obtained through monitoring is expected to inform this management objective. By monitoring Svalbard’s “green stuff” we will obtain insight into the most important ongoing changes affecting the high-arctic vegetation, and – where possible – distinguish between human impact and natural variation. The monitoring will inform us about the consequences of climate change. We need to pay particularly close attention to those components of the vegetation that have important roles in the wider ecosystem.

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