Climate impact on Arctic societies in the past, present and future

by Soroush Majlesi, Maiju Kosunen and Ida Rosendahl
Reykjavik 13-07-2016

So, how do you combine a project containing an interview with the Greenland National Museum with analysis of Icelandic grassland CO2 chamber flux measurements? No problem, we have it all figured out.

We, 3 students from Finland, Iran and Denmark first met up in Nuuk and were thrown out into an interview at the museum. The context was climate change effects on Arctic societies. As natural scientists, we of course appreciate good field work and decided that a social science project should be no exception from this.

Dog sleighs from the museum exhibition. A mean of transportation developed for the unique Greenlandic climate conditions. Photo by Pavel Alexseychik.

So before the interview, we went to the museum, well equipped with cameras and notepads and walked through the exhibitions telling us the tale of the many cultural periods of the Greenlandic history. Not less than 18 times did we notice, that changing climate in some way affected the living conditions in Greenland. For instance, a warmer climate during the 1200s at the west coast caused the dog sleigh to disappear south of Kangerlussuaq. We arrived to the interview with museum inspector Manumina and deputy director Bo well prepared with questions. We learned a lot about the museum, but not what we had expected. It turned out that you have to be a skilled interviewer to keep the interview going in your desired direction. We learned that the museum is not just for tourists, but first of all serve an important function in a rapidly changing society: Preservation of cultural values and of the Greenlandic identity.


The Greenlandic national costumes, an important part of the Greenlandic identity used at festive events and holidays during the year.  Photo by Pavel Alexseychik.

After the 2nd World War, Greenland opened up to the outside world and modern equipment for hunting, fishing and household were introduced. The museum, which this year can celebrate its 50th anniversary, serves to preserve the traditional Greenlandic equipment which was rapidly outdated. Then we learned a lot about middens, not to be confused with mittens, which is a major archaeological focus for the museum, since soil properties are changing with changing climate and thus the conditions for midden preservation change too.
We also learned, that from a social perspective, the future looks bright for the Arctic societies: They know how to hunt, fish and live in various weather conditions and have no problems adapting to a changing climate. So maybe hunting in the dog sleigh disappears in southern areas, but it is replaced by for instance fisheries in boats. The future of the Arctic societies from a social perspective does look bright. So how does it look from a natural science perspective? To answer this, we went to Iceland. Here we worked with Icelandic CO2 chamber flux data from a very unique grassland site. It is located at a geothermally active site, thus allowing for experiments covering a wide range of soil temperatures.


Geothermal activity is very visible close to the measurement site in Iceland. Photo by Maiju.

To keep the explanation simple, we looked at data describing the carbon loss from the soil. The ecosystem carbon and nutrient cycling is important for the soil productivity and thus affects the possibilities for plant growth. By analyzing the data, we can see that up to a 4˚C increase in soil temperature will not have a negative impact on the soil carbon content. But it will increase the soil respiration and biomass growth, indicating a higher rate of nutrient cycling. This means that the soil is more productive and suitable for growth of plants with a higher demand for nutrients.

The Icelandic geothermally active CO2 flux measurement site. Photo by Maiju.

So now you may ask yourself; will global warming have a positive or negative effect on an arctic system such as Iceland or Greenland in terms of plant growth?  Well, the answer depends on your point of view. On one hand, the change in soil properties towards a more nutrient rich soil, will mean that some of the hardy Arctic plant species will be outcompeted, and thus biodiversity is lost. We generally do not like that. On the other hand, this nutrient rich soil will make the grasslands more productive and thus allow for more efficient agricultural use of the Arctic soils to benefit the societies. That, we like a lot. It must be up to the reader to decide, whether this change is good or bad. But from the perspective of society development in response to climate change, we must conclude that the future may look brighter than what you might expect before reading this blog post.

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