Tracking Change in Greenland

Scientists have known for decades that climate change would alter the rhythms of nature, but just how and when hasn’t been easy to predict. That’s why research, especially long-term research, is so important.

At a remote field site in Greenland, Professor Eric Post has studied changes in plant and animal communities for more than a quarter century. The UC Davis wildlife ecologist and his graduate students document how spring is arriving weeks earlier than it used to and what consequences that brings for herbivores like caribou and musk oxen.

Bringing the Science Back Home

Not only is Post’s work shedding light on ecological shifts in the Arctic, but he and colleagues engage young students and their teachers back home to learn about field research taking place at the top of the world. A project called APPLES (Arctic Plant Phenology: Learning through Engaged Science) shows K-12 teachers, through summer workshops in the U.S., how to deliver lessons about Greenland and climate change.

“Over the course of five days, we give them a crash course in climate change, how to teach climate change, how to confront climate change denial, and how we study the effects of climate change in the Arctic,” Post said. “We also give them the materials and methods to replicate what we’re doing back in their own school yards.”

More than 30 teachers from 19 states are involved in the program, which continues to grow.

Students are able to collect data on the timing of plant growth and share it through the APPLES website. They also have access to the Greenland data Post and his students are collecting and can compare that to their own data.

One of the more interesting research tools students get to experiment with is a time-lapse camera, just like the 50 such cameras Post and crew have spread out over 25 square miles of caribou calving range. Within the span of a few minutes, students can watch the seasons unfold through a time-lapse movie from Greenland, with snow rapidly falling and melting and then plants growing and flowering.

A Caribou Herd in Decline

Perhaps the most dramatic trend the scientists have noticed is how few caribou remain at the study site. From a maximum of about 500 to 600 early on, numbers have dropped in the last three years to less than 100 caribou. The reason for the decline is unclear, but may in part relate to earlier plant growth caused by a warmer climate.

Caribou are migratory animals. In Greenland, they remain on the coast until springtime, when the change in day length tells them it’s time to move eastward to their summer range and give birth to their calves. But the “caribou cafeteria” they’re heading to is opening and closing earlier in the year, which is not good news if they arrive late for the buffet. The difference in nutritional content of newly growing plants compared to older plants is taking a toll on reproductive success.

“Caribou produce fewer calves and those calves die at a higher rate in earlier green-up years because caribou can’t time their arrival to coincide with the green flush in resources that they need to provision their calves,” Post said. “Yet we can’t say the decline is solely because of climate change, because there are many complex factors affecting this population.”

Musk oxen, on the other hand, seem to be faring better. They are already on site and don’t need to migrate to catch the springtime pulse of new plant growth. When the cafeteria opens earlier, that’s a huge benefit for them. One of Post’s graduate students has documented a correlation between advancing spring growth and musk oxen abundance in her master’s thesis.

Ramping Up Polar Studies

Post came to UC Davis in 2016 from Penn State, where he was a professor focused on polar science for 16 years. But he has long been drawn to UC Davis. “As far as I’m concerned, this is the best place for environmental research or ecology,” he said.

Last year, Post launched the Polar Forum to engage the academic community in this growing field. So far, the forum has been lining up fascinating speakers like Felicity Aston, the first woman to cross Antarctica alone, and Sergey Zimov, a scientist behind the novel Pleistocene Park project in Siberia.

He has other projects in the works to grow this international community of polar scientists. A seed grant from UC Davis Global Affairs is bringing the director of the University of Oxford Polar Forum to campus for an exchange of ideas. He would also like to see UC Davis offer a general polar studies course—and ultimately an expanded curriculum.

“Research will always be important,” Post said. “But more education and outreach are needed because that’s the first step in mitigation or adaptation to climate change.”