Terrestrial Ecosystem

Aphids ( <em>Acyrthosiphon svalbardicum</em> ) feeding on <em>Dryas octopetala</em> , Blomstrandhalvøya.
Photo: Stephen Coulson / Norwegian Polar Institute

The combination of northern location, coastal setting, great heterogeneity of the area, and a long record of research makes Ny-Ålesund a key location for terrestrial research in the High Arctic. The Ny-Ålesund area provides unique opportunities for in-depth studies of life and ecosystem processes in Arctic environments.

The Terrestral Ecosystem Flagship Programme was established as a part of the NySMAC science plan at a workshop in Oslo in 2009.The concluding document discusses the focus areas for future terrestrial research in Ny-Ålesund. 

Flagship document

At the 12th Ny-Ålesund seminar in Tromsø in 2015, the terrestrial flagship group meet again. They acknowledged the content and validity of the flagship concluding document from 2009, but agreed there was a need for revitalizing the content and make suggestions for concrete actions. It was also agreed that the Terrestrial flagship should focus on the ecosystem food webs above and below ground as illustrated by the figure below.

Terrestrial food web
Terrestrial food web. The above ground plant-based food web, with input from marine and limnic ecosystems, and the below-ground soil system, for high-Arctic tundra in Svalbard. The soil microbiota are indicated by key taxonomic units involved in degradation of soil organic carbon to greenhouse gases. Figure: Modified from Ims et al. (2013).

Scientific topics

The following four scientific topics capture the current and future direction of the Terrestrial flagship.

  1. High-Arctic model ecosystem
  2. Terrestrial food web
  3. External drivers (abiotic and biotic)
  4. Adaptations to changing conditions in the Arctic

Work packages

The work is organized into three operational work-packages. The three work-packages are to some degree overlapping thematically and may be viewed as three integrated components of the revitalized terrestrial flagship program.

WP 1: Ecosystem

The main goal of this work package is to establish replicated long-term monitoring sites in targeted habitat types (e.g. wetlands/moss tundra with high productivity) on the entire Brøgger Peninsula. In each site we will measure a set of state variables describing e.g. species/communities, ecosystem functions and processes. An important strength of the Ny-Ålesund scientific base is the opportunity to combine observational and experimental studies on different temporal and spatial scales to obtain a mechanistic understanding of long-term stressors and their impacts on the ecosystem. Establishment of replicated sites in the Brøgger Peninsula will enable to understand how small-scale local process applies to the landscape level. Such establishment requires coverage of a sufficient range of biotic and abiotic components of the ecosystem, coordinated monitoring of producers, consumers and predators, as well as weather parameters at the same locations. Some examples of state variables can be: Snow-pack properties, basal ground ice, herbivore exclosures at site to assess impacts from grazing and climate warming, plant biomass, gas fluxes (methane, CO2), precipitation and hydrology (linked directly to events like methane emissions etc.).

WP 2: Ecosystem-based adaptive monitoring COAT

The Brøgger Peninsula is designated as a COAT-site (Climate-Ecological Observatory for Arctic Tundra). COAT is a system for long-term adaptive ecosystem monitoring based on food-web theory, and aims to become the world’s most comprehensive and management relevant long-term research enterprise for arctic terrestrial ecosystems. In this regards reference sites will be designated for monitoring natural changes and will be intensively instrumented to record relevant parameters (cf. WP 1 Ecosystem).

The COAT science plan includes:

  • A comprehensive review of the functioning of the terrestrial food webs in the arctic with specific references to science-based knowledge about climate impacts.
  • A formulation of climate impact prediction models that define climate sensitive and management relevant monitoring targets, state variables, sampling designs, and mathematical/statistical modeling approaches.
  • Protocols for updating prediction models, monitoring design, and methods in response to new knowledge, technologies, and societal priorities according to the paradigm of adaptive monitoring.

We have already established inter-institutional cooperation (NP, NTNU, University of Groningen), that has originated from Ny-Ålesund meetings. Currently we are planning to combine the long-term monitoring data time-series in integrative studies where we focus on how climate variability (winter rain and summer temperature e.g. influencing plant biomass) shape population dynamics across the herbivore (barnacle goose, reindeer) and predator (arctic fox) community in Brøgger Peninsula. COAT-Infrastructure is currently fully funded from 2016 to 2020.

WP 3: Adaptations of organisms to Arctic environments and its seasonality

The Ny-Ålesund scientific base and the Brøgger Peninsula provides unique opportunities for in-depth studies of Arctic biota, from unicellular organisms to plants and animals. Living in the high-Arctic demands evolutionary understanding of single species/species groups and ecosystem adaptations to e.g. low temperatures, photoperiod and extreme climate shifts. Moreover, organisms in nature encounter seasonal climatic variation and cope with that variation through physiological, morphological and behavioral adjustments at the behavioral (for the animals), hormonal, cellular, and biochemical levels. Biota responds directly to increasing temperatures e.g. warmer winters, earlier springs, later falls, longer growing seasons, rising sea levels or melting glaciers. Changes both within and between seasons may cause long-term effects on biological activity, processes and life history of terrestrial organisms.

The biotic world has already responded to recent rapid climate change by expanding ranges poleward and by altering the timing of important events in seasonal life histories, orchestrated principally by light and temperature.

In this work package, we will focus on:

  • Behavioral adaptations of focal species/species groups in the ecosystem.
  • Evolutionary low-temperature adaptations.
  • Microbial system adaptations to changing hydrology, temperature and substrate availability.
  • Temperature/photoperiodic (light) interactions.
  • Comparative adaptations between species/species groups.
  • Aline species and ecosystem impacts.