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Most Arctic Animals Should Deal With Climate Change Just Fine

New research suggests that most Arctic mammals will actually be helped, not hurt, by climate change

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New research suggests that most Arctic mammals may actually benefit from climate change. Arctic specialists like the Arctic fox, however, may not do quite so well. Photo: Cloudtail

The world is warming, spurred by an amplified greenhouse effect. Thanks to polar amplification, high-latitude regions like the Arctic and subarctic are supposed to be disproportionately affected (indeed, over the past 30 years, some places have already warmed up by 3 degrees Fahrenheit). For this reason, the thinking goes, animals that live in the frigid northern reaches will be the ones most strongly affected—the poster animals for climate change.

That, it seems, may not quite be the case.

In a new study by Anouschka Hof, Roland Jansson and Christer Nilsson, all at Umeå University in Sweden, the trio of scientists found that, in most cases, global warming will actually give a boost to Arctic and subarctic life. Looking at 61 terrestrial mammal species that currently inhabit high-latitude Europe the scientists found that, under climate conditions forecast for the year 2080, the majority of the species will see their ranges expand. They found that warming will actually bring in more species from further south, increasing biodiversity in the region. And, even in their worst-case scenario, they expect at most one species to go extinct: the Arctic fox. But, they suspect that this worst-case scenario is just that, a nightmare scenario unlikely to unfold. Hof and co.:

Our results indicate that, irrespective of the scenario, most species (43 out of 61) will expand and shift their ranges, mostly in a north-easterly direction, in response to expected climate change if we assume that species are able to colonize all areas that become climatically suitable. …We further predict that, irrespective of the scenario, the climate in (sub)arctic Europe will become suitable to ten more mammalian species. …Thus, mammalian species richness in (sub)arctic Europe is likely to increase substantially when full dispersal ability is assumed.

The reason they expect global warming to benefit Arctic mammals rather than hinder them, they say, is that most high-latitude species are generalists: they’re used to having to cope with a wide range of climatic conditions and aren’t too dependent on any one feature of the ecosystem. Think of the North American beaver, a hardy creature, compared to, say, koalas, who wouldn’t make it far without their eucalyptus trees. The specialists like the Arctic fox, the Norway lemming, or the wolverine, they say, may not do so well. But they also don’t expect them to go extinct.

In contrast to the general belief that species inhabiting the (sub)arctics will face increased levels of stress due to climate change, our work suggests that the climate in sub(arctic) Europe will ameliorate the future conditions for most of its mammalian species. Warmer and wetter conditions favour more species. However, alterations in landscapes and ecosystem management caused by socioeconomic activities can severely impact species distribution and migration. It is thus uncertain if species will be able to reach areas that we expect to meet their climatic requirements in the future.

They suggest that in planning for the future, the best bet for preserving Arctic and subarctic mammal species will come in making sure that there is enough connected habitat for the animals to migrate within, giving them a chance to move freely as the climate shifts.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Flowers May Adapt Faster than Thought to Climate Change
Stressed Out Species Aren’t Adapting in the Ways We Think They Should

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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