Last year’s extreme snowfall wiped breeding of plants and animals in a region of the Arctic © Lars Holst Hansen

Last year’s extreme snowfall wiped breeding of plants and animals in a region of the Arctic

Findings may offer a peep into the future, where increased climatic variability may push the arctic species to their limits.

Last year, just a handful of plants and animals in Zackenberg, Northeast Greenland were able to reproduce due to vast amounts of un-melted snow covering the ground well into summer, a study by Danish researchers has found.

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The Arctic is home to a diverse and specialised group of plants and animal that are highly adapted to life under the severe climatic conditions. But now the Arctic is changing, and the region is experiencing both long-term warming and retreating snow-cover. At the same time, the risk of extreme events is increasing.

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In 2018, extreme snowfall in Zackenberg meant that only a few plants and animals were able to reproduce due to late-melting snow. While poor reproduction has been observed in individual species before, such poor reproduction across all levels of the ecosystem has never been seen.

“One non-breeding year is hardly that bad for high-arctic species. The worrying perspective is that 2018 may offer a peep into the future, where increased climatic variability may push the arctic species to – and potentially beyond – their limits,” said Niels Martin Schmidt, lead author of the study.

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“Our study shows that climate change is more than ‘just’ warming, and that ecosystems may be hard hit by currently still rare but extreme events. What it also brings out is the unparalleled value of long-term observations of the Arctic. Only by keeping an eye on full arctic ecosystems can we understand the havoc brought by the changing climate.”

Reader Q&A: Could we live on Antarctica and Greenland if all the ice melted?

Asked by: Joe Elliott, Nottingham

If both ice sheets melted, the global sea level would rise by about 68m. This would put most of Europe underwater, along with large parts of Asia, Canada and South America. Greenland and Antarctica are currently both pushed downwards by the weight of the ice on top.

Once it melted, the land would eventually spring back, but this would take tens of thousands of years. In the meantime, Antarctica would resemble a mountainous archipelago like Australasia, and Greenland would be a central bowl below sea level, defended by a ring of mountains. With a warmer climate, there would definitely be some room for human settlement, but Antarctica is geologically very similar to the Andes so it’s never going to be prime real estate.

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