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Saving Arctic plant species from climate change

By Dennis T. Avery
web posted May 19, 2008

Entrance to the Global Seed Vault (Mari Tefre)
Entrance to the Global Seed Vault (Mari Tefre)

The Norwegian government is building its high-tech new Global Seed Vault on the Arctic island of Svalbard to protect the world's plant varieties in case of global climate change. Meanwhile, outside the Svalbard vault, the island's own hardy Arctic plants are demonstrating that Mother Nature knows how to keep her species alive through natural adaptation to the earth's naturally radical climate cycling

During the last Ice Age Svalbard was frozen under mile-thick ice for 90,000 years. Even the polar bears were driven south, and the island probably had no surviving plants at all. But when the Ice Age ended about 12,000 years ago, global temperatures swiftly rose more than 15 degrees C—and 40 percent of Svalbard became ice-free. Almost immediately, says a research team, such Arctic plants as mountain avens and white arctic bell heather colonized the newly available territory

Inger Greve Alsos, who studies the biology of Svalbard, recently reported on a new DNA analysis of its tough and persistent plant life ("Frequent Long-distance Plant Colonization in the Changing Arctic," Science, Vol. 316, 2007.) Her report says Svalbard has been colonized by plants repeatedly as it warmed and froze during Ice Ages and warm interglacials. The plants presumably also thrived during the eight global warmings that Svalbard and the earth have experienced since the last Ice Age—as they are in ours.

"For all except one species, multiple seeds were necessary to bring the observed genetic diversity to Svalbard," says biologist Alsos. She estimates that re-establishing the mountain aven on Svalbard would have required thousands of seeds. Dr. Alsos' work suggests, however, that whenever Svalbard has been warm enough for the plants, the seeds have arrived

Apparently, the mountain aven came from Russia, hundreds of miles across the Arctic sea, blown by the prevailing southeastern winds across the ice. Dr. Alsos says Svalbard has also been repeatedly colonized by plants from Greenland, Iceland, and even Canada—but not from Scandinavia, which is nearer and along bird migration routes. Scandinavian seeds would have had to travel upwind. That didn't happen

"Recurrent glacial cycles have probably selected for a highly mobile arctic flora," said the Svalbard research team in their Science report. "In addition, some dispersal vectors may be particularly efficient in the Arctic as a result of the open landscape."

Modern humans have become arrogant about our impact on the earth. We think we have to save Nature's seeds—from the same climate changes that have persisted throughout time. The Ice Ages come every 100,000 years, whether we burn fossil fuels or not. The ice cores, seabed sediments, fossil pollen, and cave stalagmites all testify to a moderate, natural 1,500-year climate cycle that is tied to the sun and has persisted through the past million years. The Russians tell us there's even a short Arctic climate cycle of about 70 years, and that the Arctic was warmer in the 1920s than it is today. Today, many decision makers are doing their best to ignore this evidence and foster illusions about the destructive power of our modern world.

The plants and polar bears have evolved to deal with climate changes. It was the Viking colonists on southern Greenland 1,000 years ago who couldn't adapt when the Little Ice Age arrived bringing sea ice to their shores.

Whenever the sun warms the oceans, Svalbard will have ice-free land, and the Arctic plants will cycle back. The question remains whether humans will continue to persist—or whether we will frighten ourselves into extinction over a planetary warming that has totaled 0.2 degrees since 1940—right on the 1,500-year cycle's schedule. ESR

Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC and is the Director for the Center for Global Food Issues. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer, of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Hundred Years, Readers may write him at PO Box 202, Churchville, VA 2442 or email to cgfi@hughes.net.

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