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How will climate change affect Greenland – new monitoring initiative to predict effects

The Arctic is experiencing temperatures that are well above the normal. Sea ice is disappearing and the warming affects the climate – and thus living conditions – in Greenland. A new monitoring programme will reveal the interactions between multiple complex processes and how the future may look like in Greenland and the rest of the Arctic.

2016.12.07 | Peter Bondo Christensen

Through more than twenty years, a number of Greenlandic and Danish research institutions have monitored more than 1.000 different parameters on land and in water and air within the framework of the Greenland Ecosystem Monitoring (GEM).

Monitoring has been conducted at Zackenberg in North-East Greenland, representing a high-Arctic region, and at Nuuk in West Greenland, representing a low-Arctic region.

The monitoring is the longest time series in the world from the Arctic regions and it forms the basis of numerous international research projects and studies on climate change impacts in the Arctic. The data records are also used in several international conventions and programmes of the Arctic Council.

Vicious spiral

Studies have shown that the processes and changes occurring in air and water and on land greatly influence each other.

The increased melting of glaciers provides more freshwater to the sea and this changes the whole ecosystem of the productive Arctic ocean. The reduction of sea ice leads to warmer sea temperatures through solar radiation, which again results in higher temperatures in the overlying air. This leads to the melting of the permafrost on land, which in turn increases the emission of the potent greenhouse gas methane. Increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere create higher temperatures which, in turn, affect the sea ice. A vicious spiral is set in motion.

The changes have already impacted Greenland species and ecosystems. New species have appeared. For example, mackerel is now present in Greenland waters. Other species move northwards and the traditional prey for hunters experience harsher conditions as temperatures rise.

Greenland is strongly influenced by the ongoing climate change. The diminished spread of sea ice opens up new opportunities for sailing, while reducing the traditional use of dog sleds. As the permafrost thaws, the piling for runways and buildings disappears.

Help from satellites

It is essential to understand the most important processes in nature to identify the relationships between the physical and biological components of the ecosystems and thus be able to predict changes and their implications for the Greenland society.

Greenland Ecosystem Monitoring has therefore introduced a new 5-year strategy including monitoring in the Disko Bay off the Ilulissat glacier, which is the largest contributor of freshwater to the Arctic waters. The programme also includes information gathering from, among others, fishermen along the west coast of Greenland (citizen science). Satellite observations and measurements will help to clarify and understand the processes occurring in a changing Arctic, which will not only affect the local population but also the rest of the world.

“Monitoring in the Disko Bay will expand the climate gradient of the GEM study. The area lies on the border between the high- and low-Arctic in an area with many exploitation interests such as traditional hunting, tourism, commercial fishery, mineral exploration etc. The changes in the Disko Bay will serve as a measure of the development in the Arctic in a changing climate,” says Torben Røjle Christensen from the Arctic Research Centre, Aarhus University, who is heading the ambitious programme.

With the programme, the researchers will focus on application-oriented monitoring in order to contribute more extensively to conventions, Arctic Council programmes and consultancy services to society.

Further information

Arctic Research Centre