Arctic Science Journeys
STORY: At the opposite end of the world, in the Antarctic, things aren't nearly as cold as they used to be. And here in the Arctic, well, it's getting warmer too.
For the environment of the South Pole, a warmer climate has thrown a kink into the food chain. Small shrimp-like animals called krill--which form the base of the food chain--are fast disappearing.
Valerie Loeb, an oceanographer at California's Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, says the number of krill has dropped by 90 percent over the past two decades. She says krill eat algae that live under the ice. As the ice melts, krill can no longer find food, and die. Losing the krill could spell disaster for other animals that live there.
LOEB: "It has become the keystone species in the Antarctic. It is the primary prey item for a wide variety of penguins and seabirds, of seals, whales, other large predators, as well as fish and squid."
Penguins also are paying a price for a changing Antarctic environment, says University of Alaska Fairbanks scientist Gunter Weller.
WELLER: "For example, in Antarctica there are documented changes that penguin colonies have gone back drastically. Because apparently there is less sea ice and they depend to some extent on the ice. Partly because there is more snow and the very limited areas where penguins can nest are inundated with snow, and these poor buggers are breeding in snow or melted snow or puddles and they are not very successful."
Kenneth Coale, a biochemist at Moss Landing, says the changes may be related to global warming.
COALE: "And it's a particular concern to us that global warming may effect loss of habitat in ways that we really haven't considered before. In this case it melts it."
Alaska's Gunter Weller says profound changes may be in store for the other end of the planet as well. Signs of change, such as melting Arctic permafrost, warmer oceans and less sea ice, are all harbingers of things to come. Valerie Loeb says many people believe climate change takes a long time to alter plant and animal communities. But she says her study of krill shows otherwise.
LOEB: "This has happened within my lifetime and, as the warming trend continues, by the end of my lifetime I think that I can expect to see a radically different Antarctic ecosystem than I see today."
If Loeb is right, the same prediction can be made of the Arctic as well.
OUTRO: For Arctic Science Journeys, this is Robert Hannon reporting from Fairbanks, Alaska.
Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
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