Research has uncovered alarming evidence that high Arctic ponds, many of which have been permanent bodies of water for thousands of years, are completely drying out during the polar summer. These shallow ponds, which dot the Arctic landscape, are important indicators of environmental change, and they’re especially susceptible to the effects of climate change because of their low water volume.

As published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Marianne Douglas (right), a professor of earth and atmospheric science and director of the Canadian Circumpolar Institute at the University of Alberta, and Dr. John Smol, a professor of biology at Queen’s University, have studied these unique Arctic ponds for the last 24 years, collecting detailed data such as water levels and quality from approximately 40 ponds. Collectively, this data represents the longest record of systematic limnological (the science of the properties of fresh water) monitoring from the high Arctic.

The researchers recorded evidence of recent lower water levels and changes in water chemistry consistent with an increase in evaporation/precipitation ratios (E/P) and warmer temperatures. Until recently, the ponds of the study sites were permanent features of the landscape, but in early July 2006, because of warming trends in the Arctic, several of the main study ponds dried up completely, whereas others had dramatically reduced water levels.

“It was quite shocking to see some of our largest study ponds dry up by early summer,” Dr. Douglas says.

The ecological ramifications of these changes are likely severe and will be felt throughout the Arctic ecosystem, she says. They would affect waterfowl habitat and breeding grounds, invertebrate population dynamics, food for insectivores and drinking water for animals.

“These surface water ponds are so important because they are often hotspots of biodiversity and production for microorganisms, plants and animals in this otherwise extreme terrestrial environment,” Dr. Douglas says.

Book Pick: Long-term Environmental Change in Arctic and Antarctic Lakes, Vol. 8   

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