Vanishing Ponds in the Arctic

Canadian climatologists have discovered that water that existed for thousands of years is disappearing from Ellesmere Island’s landscape, prompting climate researchers to sound the alarm. The scientist’s alarming research, which was conducted over 24 years, was published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ online journal.

The Globe and Mail ran the story today on its cover:

By KATHERINE HARDING from Tuesday’s Globe and Mail

July 3, 2007

John Smol had just landed at a remote scientific research base near the top of the world last summer, when he realized that something was terribly wrong.

“I remember getting off the helicopter and looking out and wondering: ‘What the hell is going on here?’ ” Prof. Smol, one of Canada’s top Arctic climate researchers, said in an interview.

It was early July, and where several shallow Arctic ponds had formed for thousands of years during the polar summer on Ellesmere Island’s Cape Herschel, there was now only dirt. Others had dramatically reduced water levels.

Prof. Smol, a Queen’s University biologist, and fellow researcher Marianne Douglas, a University of Alberta earth and atmospheric sciences professor, could conclude there was only one cause for the disappearance of these fixtures of the Arctic landscape: climate change.

The professors’ alarming research, which was conducted over 24 years, was published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences online journal. While they’ve been studying these ancient bodies of freshwater since 1983, Prof. Smol said 2006 was the first year that about seven of the 40 ponds they’ve been monitoring completely dried up. They also noted that the water chemistry was changing, with the ponds now containing higher levels of salt due to evaporation.

“A major threshold has passed,” Prof. Smol warned. “These ponds are at best ephemeral, and maybe even worse, some are maybe just going into the land.”

Prof. Smol said their study is another sign the Arctic is changing dramatically. But even he’s surprised by the pace.

“I think it’s worse than we thought it was,” he said. “It’s happening much faster than even we had anticipated. … It’s happening right before my very eyes.”

In 1994, Prof. Douglas and Prof. Smol first warned that Arctic ponds were in trouble, publishing controversial research that found that while the bodies of water had existed for millenniums, they had started undergoing marked ecological changes, consistent with climate change, in the past 150 years.

“Not a lot of people believed it,” recalled Prof. Douglas, who directs the University of Alberta’s Canadian Circumpolar Institute. However, Prof. Douglas said, scientific techniques, such as studying sediment cores taken from the bottom of the ponds, told a different story.
Prof. Douglas said many were skeptical that the Arctic started showing some of these changes brought on by higher temperatures “way back then.”

She said that as signs of climate change in the Arctic have become more common in recent years, such as melting sea ice and permafrost, the public is increasingly convinced that the region is thawing.

“I think we are a tipping point,” she said. “We never expected to see these ponds dry up so soon.”

Prof. Douglas said that the loss of these fragile ecosystems in the Arctic could have profound negative effects on the plants, organisms and habitat, such as breeding seabirds, that depend on this freshwater source.

Millions of these ponds – none are formally named – pop up in the Arctic every summer, usually between July and September. They are less than two metres deep and range in size from several football fields to a small living room.

The research on these ubiquitous bodies of water happened almost by chance. In the early 1980s, Prof. Smol was working in the High Arctic on another research project when he realized that “virtually nothing” was known about them.

Prof. Smol, who is travelling with Prof. Douglas up to Cape Herschel this week to continue monitoring the Arctic ponds, is hopeful that Canadians are alarmed by their findings. “Changes are happening now and we have to move.”

He said the Arctic, which is extremely sensitive to warming trends, is increasingly becoming the world’s version of the miner’s canary. “Typically what happens in the Arctic is an early warning of what’s going to be happening in other places soon,” he said. “What happens there affects us all.”

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