The Kangerlussuaq region of southwest Greenland is a 3,728-square-mile corridor stretching from the ice sheet to the Labrador Sea. In this area near the top of the world, flora and fauna range from microbes in the ice sheet to large herbivores — caribou and musk oxen — living on the tundra, and aquatic plants and animals in the diverse bodies of water, including silt-filled rivers, ponds, lakes and mountain streams.
The varied terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in this, the country’s largest ice-free region, receive water, geological material, organic carbon and nutrients from the glacier surface — an integrated system that has been undergoing substantial change since 2000 due to rapid regional warming.
In a recent article in the journal BioScience, “The Arctic in the 21st Century: Changing Biogeochemical Linkages Across a Paraglacial Landscape of Greenland,” researchers from seven countries, including a University of Maine team led by Jasmine Saros, associate director of the UMaine Climate Change Institute, detail the ecosystems in southwest Greenland and explore how rapidly changing environmental conditions may alter this landscape, including the flow of water, carbon and nutrients. N. John Anderson at Loughborough University is the lead author.
The research collaboration, the outgrowth of a 2015 international workshop in the U.K., highlights the importance of looking across landscape ecosystems and time periods — including the paleoecological record — to understand the interrelated, dynamic processes affecting areas such as the Arctic that are expected to continue to warm. Saros is one of seven UMaine professors conducting research in the Arctic in recent years.
Based on how the Arctic’s diverse geomorphic and ecological systems have responded to the current warming trend, shifting temperature and precipitation levels have the potential to change such aspects as mammal size and abundance, vegetation cover and type, and carbon and nutrient flows.
In the last two decades, the Arctic has seen some of the most rapid environmental changes on Earth. Synthesizing two decades of multidisciplinary research in the Kangerlussuaq region — focused on changes in water, carbon, nutrients and other elements, and anthropologic influences such as atmospheric pollution — highlights the complex linkages among glacial, aquatic and terrestrial systems in the deglaciated landscape, according to the researchers.