Arctic vulnerable to worst-case oil spills

As more of the Arctic Ocean becomes open for shipping, the United States isn’t prepared for potential disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, top U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. State Department officials told a Senate subcommittee Wednesday.

Coast Guard Adm. Robert Papp said that when the Deepwater Horizon explosion occurred in spring 2010, the Coast Guard was able to deploy manpower and resources from its numerous bases in the Gulf of Mexico to assist in cleanup and recovery efforts.

In the Arctic, the Coast Guard has limited resources and infrastructure, he told a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

If a similar spill occurred in the arctic, “We would have nothing,” Papp said. “We’d be starting from ground zero.”

David Balton, deputy assistant secretary of state for oceans and fisheries, also drew a comparison between the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the U.S. response to a spill in the arctic. Federal agencies hadn’t anticipated how to respond to a worst-case scenario in the gulf and the same is true in the arctic, he said.

Environmental changes in the arctic, such as rising temperatures, melting sea ice and changing ecosystems, combined with new technologies, are opening new possibilities for human activity in the region, including ocean shipping, oil and natural gas development, mineral ore extraction, commercial fishing and tourism.

But the added activity creates risks. Greater shipping traffic through fishing areas and increased oil and natural gas exploration raise the risk of accidents.

Energy exploration is under way but the existing infrastructure is limited.

Pete Slaiby, vice president of Shell Alaska, which hopes to begin its exploration drilling in Alaska next year, said drilling, cleanup and well-control technology improved as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Shell vessels will respond to spills within 60 minutes. In the worst-case scenario, he said the company is prepared to recover 25,000 barrels of oil a day via mechanical skimming alone. Shell wells will be accessible by both divers and remote-operated vehicles.

“I believe we have the best oil response plan in the world,” he said.

The Coast Guard is examining what it will need in the next few decades to fulfill its roles in the arctic, Papp said. He said its most immediate need is a seasonal facility to base crews, hangar aircraft and protect vessels to mount a response.

Balton said it would take several years to meet minimum requirements of preparedness.

Arctic town eyes future as Europe’s gateway to space

Sweden’s small Arctic town of Kiruna has a surprisingly international airport with regular flights to London and Tokyo, but it has even bigger plans: to offer commercial space flights.

Spaceport Sweden, a company founded in 2007, hopes to be able to provide the first flights within a decade from Kiruna’s airport.

“We’re working on establishing commercial flights from Sweden to space for tourism and research, and to create a launching pad at the airport,” explained the company’s enthusiastic director, Karin Nilsdotter, seated in her office at the Swedish Institute of Space Physics (IRF).

The idea is that space tourists would take off for a maximum two-hour trip into space aboard futuristic spacecraft currently undergoing testing, which resemble a cross between an airplane and a space shuttle and which can carry between one and six passengers.

The sub-orbital flights will send passengers 100 kilometres (60 miles) above Earth and allow them to experience five minutes of weightlessness.

Kiruna’s location in the far north of Sweden, and Europe, makes it a prime location for space flights, Nilsdotter said.

The space flights would not be disturbed by heavy air traffic, nor is the region a densely populated area. The wide-open spaces within Sweden’s borders also mean no bureaucratic red-tape to be resolved with other countries.

Kiruna also has 60 years experience of space research to its credit. IRF was founded in 1957 and the Swedish space research and rocket centre Esrange, located in the town, was founded in 1966.

“We have to use this knowledge to create a unique adventure with global impact: space travel,” Nilsdotter insisted.

“Even if it’s too early to give any figures, market studies show there is potential for 14,000 travellers after 10 years of business,” she added.

Spaceport Sweden is not building its own spacecraft, but will instead collaborate with a company that is doing so, she says, refusing to disclose how many spacecraft it will operate nor the identity of its partner.

In the United States, several companies are already developing aircraft capable of carrying space tourists, such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

“The technology isn’t fully developed yet,” Nilsdotter said, adding that the companies were currently carrying out test flights in the United States.

The first commercial space flights are expected to take place in the United States in 2014 and a few years after that in Sweden.

The head of the Esrange space research and rocket site, Lennart Poromaa, is meanwhile more measured in his enthusiasm for the project.

“In a few years there may be commercial space flights, but it will take longer than people think,” he said.

Esrange pulled out of the project “because we’re not about creating adventure”, he explained.

But “we could help them if they need help in the field of research, possibly”, the aerospace engineer said.

According to Nilsdotter, space flights could take off four times a day. Esrange meanwhile launches four rockets a year.

“Researchers who want to test their experiments in microgravity may be able to fly with us and then adjust their projects,” she said.

In the United States, more than 1,000 tickets for space flights have already been reserved, at around $200,000 (153,000 euros) apiece.

For adventure-seekers who can’t wait to visit space, Spaceport Sweden already offers flights from Kiruna airport to view the northern lights, a spectacular phenomenon of colourful lights that streak across the night sky, for the tidy sum of 6,990 kronor (810 euros, $1,059).

Arctic thaw threatens much of world: WWF report

Global warming in the Arctic could affect a quarter of the world’s population through flooding and amplify the wider impact of climate change, a report by environmental group WWF said Wednesday.

Air temperatures in the region have risen by almost twice the global average over the past few decades, according to the peer-reviewed scientific report.

That is not just down to melting the polar ice pack, a major cooling agent for global weather patterns and reflector of sunlight.

It is also linked to the release of more of the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming that are naturally trapped in frozen soil, it claimed.

“What this report says is that a warming Arctic is much more than a local problem, it’s a global problem,” said Martin Sommerkorn, senior climate change advisor on the WWF’s Arctic Programme.

“Simply put, if we do not keep the Arctic cold enough, people across the world will suffer the effects,” he warned.

The combination of thawing Arctic sea ice and melting ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica was likely to raise global sea levels by about 1.2 metres (four feet) by 2100, more than previously thought, according to scientists commissioned by the WWF for the report.

“The associated flooding of coastal regions will affect more than a quarter of the world’s population,” the WWF said.

Scientists have expressed concern in recent years about the now visible melting of the Arctic region, to the extent that some have predicted virtually ice-free summers there this century.

The full impact of polar melting has yet to be taken into account by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific reference for world climate predictions, as reliable observations have only started to emerge in recent years.

Sommerkorn said the melting was already having an effect on the weather in the northern hemisphere, such as drier conditions in Scandinavia or the southwest of North America, or more humid Mediterranean winters.

However some climatologists at the World Climate Conference here urged caution about such short-term judgments, while acknowledging the major long-term influence of Arctic melting on the world’s climate.

“We see that summer sea ice is likely to disappear by 2060,” said Vicky Pope, head of climate change advice at Britain’s Met Office.

“But I don’t think we understand the physics yet,” she added, pointing to possible natural variability to account for recent local weather patterns.

The WWF report concluded that melting sea ice and the release of pockets of greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide from thawing permafrost and methane seeping from the depths of the warming Arctic Ocean — would also fuel disruption to atmospheric and ocean currents much further afield.

Arctic permafrost stores twice as much carbon as contained in the atmosphere, acording to the WWF. Some 90 percent of near surface permafrost in the Arctic could disappear by the end of the century, the report found.

That trend could significantly accelerate global warming and force a shift in emissions targets, Sommerkorn told journalists.

“If we allow the Arctic to get much warmer it is really doubtful whether we will be able to keep the Arctic climate feedbacks under control,” he said.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is due at the conference later this week, on Wednesday urged world leaders to act now to halt global warming, after seeing first-hand its effects in the Arctic during a visit to Norway.

“The Arctic is similar to sending a canary into a coalmine — this is a danger warning for the global climate,” he said.

World leaders will gather at a UN climate summit in Copenhagen in December to try and seal a new international accord on fighting climate change.

Arctic talks open amid protests

Talks on preserving the Arctic amid a race for its rich resources opened Monday as protestors urged the meeting to focus on damage to the fragile region from climate change.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the summit in Chelsea, Canada, that “those who have legitimate interests in the region” should be heard amid anger from some countries and indigenous peoples that they had been excluded.

“We need all hands on deck because there is a huge amount to do, and not much time to do it,” the top US diplomat warned.

“What happens in the Arctic will have broad consequences for the earth and its climate. The melting of sea ice, glaciers, and permafrost will affect people and ecosystems around the world,” she said.

“And understanding how these changes fit together is a task that demands international cooperation.”

The talks brought together foreign ministers from Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States.

They were to discuss how to manage the economic opportunities and protect the fragile ecosystem in the frozen north, as the Arctic sea ice melts away and companies line up to drill for oil and gas.

“There is an urgency driving our efforts,” Clinton warned. “As the sea ice recedes and waters warm, we expect more fish to move into the Arctic. Where fish go, fishing vessels will follow.

“And in order to manage future Arctic fisheries, we need to be working together now to share what we know about the changing marine ecosystem.”

But protestors urged participants to also focus on the damage from climate change, and the so-called greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

“The thing that people should expect and demand is an expressed commitment on the issue of climate change,” Michael Byers, author of “Who Owns the Arctic,” told AFP.

Dozens of protesters from Greenpeace and the Council of Canadians, a political activist group, decried the scramble for offshore drilling, saying Arctic mineral resources should remain untouched.

“When you think about it, three of the worst emitters of carbon dioxide on the planet… the United States, Canada and Russia are going to be around the table, and they’re going to be talking about the region of the world that is at the epicenter of climate change impact,” said Byers, a politics professor at the University of British Columbia.

“So if they don’t talk about climate change and they don’t talk about reducing emissions, then they will have willfully turned a blind eye to the biggest problem facing the Arctic today.”

The ministers were to discuss creating mandatory shipping regulations, setting maritime boundaries, establishing search and rescue protocols, and negotiating territorial disputes in the Beaufort Sea and the Barents Sea.

Byers said sea ice scientists predict that the Northwest Passage and the Arctic Ocean could be “seasonally ice free within the next three to five years.”

“At that point the entire Arctic begins to look like the Gulf of St. Lawrence or the Baltic Sea and you have effectively 12 months per year of shipping with ice strengthened ships and ice breaker escorted convoys.”

Aboriginal groups and several nations, including Iceland, Sweden and Finland, have also been angered at being left out of the talks.

“It is worrying that we see the development of an inner core of five coast states of the Arctic meeting outside the architecture of the Arctic Council,” British EU representative Diana Wallis said earlier this month.

“This could seriously undermine a very precious cooperation and it has to be treated with some seriousness.”

The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental group of Arctic states and Inuit indigenous groups that meet biannually. Canada and others blocked the European Union from being granted “observer” status.

Arctic sunshine revs up greenhouse gases

Sunlight in the arctic is delivering a double climate blow, researchers say, by both melting ice and speeding up the release of greenhouse gases.

Dead vegetation preserved in far northern permafrost under ice is estimated to contain twice as much carbon dioxide as is held by the atmosphere, and global warming could allow this plant matter to decompose, releasing both that CO2 and methane, they say.

Rose Cory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her colleagues, studying melting permafrost sites in the arctic, found the amount of CO2 released was 40 percent higher when the melt water was exposed to ultraviolet light than when kept dark, buried in the permafrost.

The increase is because ultraviolet light, a component of sunlight, puts more energy into soil bacteria and fungi and accelerates the rate at which they break down organic matter and release CO2.

Major thawing in the arctic could be a major source of positive feedback that could accelerate global warming, the researchers said.

“Our task now is to quantify how fast this previously frozen carbon may be converted to CO2 so that models can include the process,” Cory told NewScientist.com.

Arctic study shows key marine food web species at risk from increasing CO2

A research expedition to the Arctic, as part of the Catlin Arctic Survey, has revealed that tiny crustaceans, known as copepods, that live just beneath the ocean surface are likely to battle for survival if ocean acidity continues to rise. The study found that copepods that move large distances, migrating vertically across a wide range of pH conditions, have a better chance of surviving.

The increasing level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is changing ocean chemistry leading to seawater moving down the pH scale towards acidity. Some areas of the Arctic Ocean are already experiencing the fastest rates of acidification on the planet and, combined with sea-ice loss and warming temperatures, the impacts of climate change are likely to hit Arctic marine life first.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and was carried out by the University of Exeter and the Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

The scientists observed that the natural range of temperature and acidity under the ice that copepods experience on a day-to-day basis corresponded to their responses to the ocean acidification conditions predicted for 100 years’ time.

Dr Ceri Lewis from the University of Exeter said: “Our study found that some marine animals may not be able to survive the impact of ocean acidification, particularly the early-life stages. This unique insight into how marine life will respond to future changes in the oceans has implications that reach far beyond the Arctic regions.”

Found across the globe, copepods are one of the most abundant marine animals and are a vital food source for a wide variety of other marine life. Copepods can also act as bio-indicators, providing an early warning system for the health of the environment.

Until recently, it has been difficult to document what copepods and other marine life do when the Arctic Ocean is covered by sea ice, and more specifically what conditions they experience.

The researchers, working alongside polar explorers as part of the Catlin Arctic Survey, camped in winter conditions on the Arctic ice at temperatures of -40 C, risking frost bitten fingers, in order to collect this novel data.

Dr Helen Findlay from Plymouth Marine Laboratory said: “Our work has shown that life experience matters when it comes to surviving stressors. More studies are needed that link the natural environmental conditions to laboratory experiments. Ceri and I are planning to continue this line of work through a PhD studentship next year.”

An estimated 30% of carbon dioxide released by humans into the atmosphere dissolves into oceans. With carbon emissions set to increase, the world’s oceans are likely to suffer from increased acidification in the coming years. This study reveals how these changes are likely to impact globally important species like copepods.

The study demonstrates that organisms with a limited natural habitat range are likely to suffer the most under changing climatic and oceanic conditions. Organisms with a wide natural range are likely to cope better.

Future studies will consider whether the type of habitat can be used to predict the vulnerability of different species to climate change.

The research by Dr Ceri Lewis and Dr Helen Findlay is part of a broad scientific research programme undertaken by the Catlin Arctic Survey between 2009 and 2011.

The Catlin Arctic Survey, through its establishment of a seasonal Ice Base in the High Arctic, has enabled research to be conducted which significantly furthers our understanding of climate change in the region. It was part of a continuing programme of support for research into ocean changes by Catlin Group Limited, the international specialty insurer and reinsurer.

Arctic study sheds light on tree-ring divergence problem

Changes in tree-ring density in the Arctic may be evidence of changes in light intensity during the trees’ growth, according to a new study by San Francisco State University researcher Alexander Stine.

The finding has direct implications for the tree-ring “divergence problem,” a phenomenon that has received considerable media attention but has been widely misinterpreted, said Stine, an assistant professor of Earth and climate sciences.

Tree rings consist of a low density ring, which forms early in the growing season, and a high density ring that forms late in the growing season. In colder parts of the world, the dense latewood rings tend to be denser during warm years. Temperature records inferred from Arctic tree rings do a good job of tracking temperature up until the 1960s, but subsequent Arctic tree-ring densities did not keep pace with increases in temperature, a discrepancy that is called the divergence problem.

Climate scientists have been aware of the divergence problem for some time, and it was mentioned in the emails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, where it became the focus of attention during the 2009 “Climategate” controversy.

The divergence is not a problem for understanding modern climate change in the Arctic, Stine explained, “because we have thermometers and those thermometers tell us it’s warming. But it’s a problem because if we want to use these tree rings as a proxy for temperatures of the past, we need to make sure that we understand what’s happening now.”

Stine sees the new findings as the “bright side” of the divergence problem, one which he hopes will lead to a more informed discussion about climate change. “We could learn more about past variations in light intensity at the Earth’s surface, and we may be able to deepen our understanding of both trees and climate.”

With his colleague Peter Huybers at Harvard University, Stine set out to understand why tree-ring density was declining in the Arctic. One possible explanation, the two thought, might be changes in light intensity that affected the trees’ ability to grow.

Starting in the 1960s, the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface has declined. Scientists debate the cause of this “global dimming,” with many scientists attributing it to pollution particles injected into the atmosphere by human activity that deflect incoming sunlight.

The researchers tested whether global dimming might be responsible for the decline in tree-ring density in the Arctic. This idea had been proposed in the past, but scientists had not been able to test the hypothesis.

“It’s very hard to distinguish a record that’s controlled by temperature from one that’s controlled by light, because light and temperature tend to vary together. Sunnier days are usually warmer,” Stine added.

To get around this challenge, the researchers took advantage of the fact that there are regional variations in cloud cover and light availability throughout the Arctic, allowing them to compare trees that grew in the brightest and darkest areas but in comparable temperature ranges. They found that divergence was largest in the darkest parts of the Arctic, where changes in light should have the largest effect.

The researchers used changes in tree-ring density following volcanic eruptions to confirm the findings. Major volcanic events such as the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines also have spewed tons of light-scattering sulfur dioxide particles into the atmosphere, decreasing the amount of sunlight reaching the surface.

Their analysis for seven different tree species suggests variations in light intensity caused by volcanic eruptions and global dimming both affect tree-ring density, and this impact is greatest in the darkest Arctic regions. In the brightest areas, the divergence problem essentially disappears, and tree-ring density is most closely linked to temperature instead.

Stine said the findings could have implications for geoengineering proposals that would pump more aerosol particles into the atmosphere as a way to block sunlight and potentially cool a warming planet. The tree-ring study suggests that Arctic trees might not grow as much — and thus not soak up as much atmosphere-polluting carbon — under such a plan.

Arctic storms that churn seas and melt ice more common than thought

Arctic storms swirling around the top of the world are more common than previously thought with about 1,900 in the first decade of the century, researchers say.

As they churn across the top of the globe each year they leave warm water and air in their wakes, melting sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, scientists at Ohio State University reported Wednesday.

An analysis of arctic storms from 2000 to 2010 found 40 percent more of the cyclones that had previously been estimated, they said.

“We now know there were more cyclones than previously thought, simply because we’ve gotten better at detecting them,” geography Professor David Bromwich said.

Many of the cyclones previously missed were small in size and short in duration, or occurred in unpopulated areas, he said.

The study area was north of 55 degrees latitude, which includes the northern reaches of Canada, Scandinavia and Russia, along with the state of Alaska.

“We can’t yet tell if the number of cyclones is increasing or decreasing, because that would take a multidecade view,” Bromwich said. “We do know that, since 2000, there have been a lot of rapid changes in the arctic — Greenland ice melting, tundra thawing — so we can say that we’re capturing a good view of what’s happening in the Arctic during the current time of rapid changes.”

As an example, he cited an especially large cyclone that hit the arctic in August 2012, which scientists say they believe played a significant role in the record retreat of sea ice that year.

Arctic states gather to try to save polar bear from global warming

Towering at the top of the food chain, the polar bear need not worry about predators but nonetheless faces a daunting enemy: climate change, which is jeopardising the very survival of the species.

To avoid relegating the majestic animal to the realm of museums, the five countries that ring the Arctic — Canada, Denmark (with Greenland), Norway, Russia and the United States — are set to meet in the northern Norwegian town of Tromsoe on March 17 to discuss how to safeguard the bear.

“No sea ice equates no polar bears. It’s really that simple,” Geoff York, a polar bear expert with environmental group WWF, told reporters in Oslo days before the meeting.

That is an alarming statement considering the speed at which the Arctic sea ice is currently disappearing, with some estimates showing it could melt completely during the summer months by 2020 or even earlier.

With the mercury rising ever higher, as many as two thirds of the 20-25,000 polar bears that roam the Arctic could disappear by the middle of this century according to a recent estimate from the US Geological Survey.

The white bears today depend on the Arctic sea ice as their main hunting ground, stalking seals to stock up on enough fat to get them through the winter.

Groggy from on-land hibernation, more and more bears today are caught off guard by their rapidly melting sea ice, forcing them to choose between dragging along their cubs on impossibly long swims or remain stranded facing an almost certain death by starvation.

And the perils do not end once the bears have made it through the summer. In the autumn, the pregnant females are forced to use precious energy to swim across ever expanding distances to reach land.

The average polar bear today weighs about 15 percent less than was the case 20 years ago, Canadian experts say.

The three-day Tromsoe meeting will discuss how to address threats against the polar bear that have emerged since they first signed a conservation agreement in 1973, back when hunters were their only known enemy.

Close to four decades after the signing of the agreement however, WWF says climate change is now “the predominant threat” facing the white bear and insists the Arctic countries have a special obligation to spearhead efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

Several of the Arctic nations are “extremely important (to the development of) international climate change policies,” said Rasmus Hansson, the head of WWF Norway, rejoicing that in the United States, President Barack Obama “has sent completely different signals than the previous administration on climate issues.”

The polar bear, whose fate will depend heavily on the outcome of the Copenhagen talks in December on a new global climate change pact set to replace the Kyoto accord, also faces other threats.

While the hunting of polar bears has been reined in in recent decades it has not completely disappeared.

Indigenous people in the region receive limited hunting permits, but the bear is also a favoured target of rich adventure tourists in Canada, where sports hunting is legal, and of poachers in Russia, where a white fur coat can cost several thousand dollars.

Other man-made hazards have also emerged as the Arctic nations rush to take advantage of the dormant riches in the region, with growing oil, mining, shipping, military and tourism activities there putting ever more pressure on the polar bear.

They are also exposed to toxic substances like PCB that flow into the region on the back of ocean and atmospheric currents, breaking down the mammals’ immune systems and reproductive capabilities.

Despite the bleak outlook, WWF insists there is still hope for the king of the Arctic.

“We know that polar bears have survived past warming events. We don’t know how but if we provide them with space, they’ll adapt as best as they can,” York said.

Arctic snow harbors deadly assassin

Heavy and prolonged snowfall can bring about unexpected conditions that encourage fungal growth, leading to the death of plants in the Arctic, according to experts.

A new international study confirms that whilst snow has an insulating effect which helps plants to grow bigger, heavy and prolonged snow can, in certain circumstances, also encourage the rapid and extensive growth of killer fungal strains.

The research results, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, show for the first time the potential long term effects of unexpected fungal development on an arctic landscape. Extensive damage to a pervasive species under snowier conditions would leave gaps for another plant to take its place over time but could also alter the food-web for insects, voles, lemmings and their predators.

Co-author of the report, Dr. Robert Baxter, School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Durham University, said: “We were surprised to find that this extremely hardy tundra vegetation was killed off by fungal attack.

“In the first few years, as expected, the insulating effect of the snow helped the vegetation to grow, but after six years a tipping point was reached where the fungus spread with great speed and destroyed the plants.

“We need to look more carefully in the future at longer term vegetation and fungus life cycles to see if this is something that could recur and be more destructive over time.”

The research team from Durham University, UK; Umea University, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden; and the Finnish Forest Research Institute, compared the effects of normal snowfall conditions and increased snow conditions on vegetation.

Researchers used snow fences to maintain increased snow conditions, and found that the fungus, Arwidssonia empetri, increased under heavier and prolonged snow cover killing the majority of the shoots of one of the dominant plant species in that area – the dwarf shrub Empetrum hermaphroditum. The team’s unexpected finding followed a decision to keep the experiment running longer than was originally planned.

The researchers believe that the findings highlight unforeseen elements that should be factored into future modelling of the impacts of climate change and its effects on vegetation and food-web chains.

Co-author of the report, Johan Olofsson, Department of Ecology and Environmental Science, Umea University, Sweden, said: “We set out to look at the effects of climate change and the potential of heavier precipitation and snowfall on plants and the processes that influence growth, decomposition and soil nutrients.

“Shrubs are an important part of the arctic vegetation and we did not expect to find a deadly species-to-species effect influenced by this manipulated snow accumulation.”

Snow usually protects arctic plants through the long winter period as it maintains a warmer local environment around the overwintering plants and helps them to grow bigger and faster.

During the seven year experiment, the researchers observed steady plant growth under the protection of the snow’s insulating blanket. In year six, the fungus spread rapidly, killing the plant and changing the vegetation from a natural carbon sink to a net carbon source.

Co-author of the report, Lars Ericson, Department of Ecology and Environmental Science, Umea University, Sweden, said: “We discovered some surprising interactions between plants and other organisms in an area that is very important for the world’s climate. The results will enable us to have a better understanding of longer term climate change effects and extreme weather events, locally and regionally.”

The study has been funded by The Natural Environment Research Council, UK; the Centre for Environmental research in Umea, Sweden; and the Swedish Research Council for the Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning. The Abisko Scientific Research Station provided accommodation, laboratory facilities and funding during the periods of field work. The research team is continuing the study to investigate the extent and duration of vegetation change under altered snow conditions.