An Arctic oasis is at risk of disappearing, study says

An Arctic oasis that serves as a lifeline to Indigenous populations is at risk of disappearing, according to a recent international study.

The area known as the North Water Polynya, located between northwest Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island in northern Baffin Bay, is home to polar bears, walruses and narwhals.

Researchers from the University of Helsinki and about 24 other universities around the world looked at microfossils and chemical biomarkers preserved in sediment to trace a 6,000-year span of the history of the area and better understand the current state of its ecosystem, as well as its trajectory. Their findings were published in July.

“This area, the Arctic’s most important oasis, is likely to disappear if temperatures continue to rise as forecast,” researcher Kaarina Weckström, of the University of Helsinki’s environmental change research unit, said in a statement Friday.

The area was stable and created good conditions for life forms about 4,400 to 4,200 years ago, when people crossed the frozen Nares Strait between what are now Canada and Greenland.

However, during warmer climate periods 2,200 to 1,200 years ago, the area was unstable and less productive, resulting in reduced populations of zooplankton, fish and marine mammals.

“According to archeological finds, there were no inhabitants in the area during this period,” Weckström said. “It’s a mystery that can potentially be explained, in light of the research findings, by conditions that were unfavourable to people reliant on hunting and fishing.” 

In the past 6,000 years, temperatures in the Arctic oasis have never been as high as they now in nearby northwest Greenland. Global warming and a reduction in sea ice are making the area unstable again.

It’s survived mainly due to favourable currents, winds and an ice bridge to the north, which has kept drift ice in the Arctic Ocean away. However, global warming threatens that bridge.

“It would be important to at least slow climate change down, in order for Arctic Indigenous peoples to have some kind of a chance to adapt to their future living conditions,” Weckström said. “Then again, as the history of the polynya suggests, if we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the rising air temperature, both Arctic sea ice and the polynya can be restored.”

The international study, Vulnerability of the North Water ecosystem to climate change, was published in the Nature Communications journal on July 22.


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