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Long-term studies detect effects of disappearing snow and ice

Research conducted over decades unravels complex ecosystem responses as icy regions shrink

American Institute of Biological Sciences

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Ecosystems are changing worldwide as a result of shrinking sea ice, snow, and glaciers, especially in high-latitude regions where water is frozen for at least a month each year--the cryosphere. Scientists have already recorded how some larger animals, such as penguins and polar bears, are responding to loss of their habitat, but research is only now starting to uncover less-obvious effects of the shrinking cryosphere on organisms. An article in the April issue of BioScience describes some impacts that are being identified through studies that track the ecology of affected sites over decades.

The article, by Andrew G. Fountain of Portland State University and five coauthors, is one of six in a special section in the issue on the Long Term Ecological Research Network. The article describes how decreasing snowfall in many areas threatens burrowing animals and makes plant roots more susceptible to injury, because snow acts as an insulator. And because microbes such as diatoms that live under sea ice are a principal source of food for krill, disappearing sea ice has led to declines in their abundance--resulting in impacts on seabirds and mammals that feed on krill. Disappearing sea ice also seems, unexpectedly, to be decreasing the sea's uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

On land, snowpack changes can alter an area's suitability for particular plant species, and melting permafrost affects the amount of carbon dioxide that plants and microbes take out of the atmosphere--though in ways that change over time. Shrinking glaciers add pollutants and increased quantities of nutrients to freshwater bodies, and melting river ice pushes more detritus downstream. Disappearing ice on land and the resulting sea-level rise will have far-reaching social, economic, and geopolitical impacts, Fountain and his coauthors note. Many of these changes are now becoming evident in the ski industry, in infrastructure and coastal planning, and in tourism. Significant effects on water supplies, and consequently on agriculture, can be predicted.

Fountain and his colleagues argue that place-based, long-term, interdisciplinary research efforts such as those supported by the Long Term Ecological Research Network will be essential if researchers are to gain an adequate understanding of the complex, cascading ecosystem responses to the changing cryosphere. Other articles in the special section on the Long Term Ecological Research Network detail further notable scientific and societal contributions of this network, which had its origins in 1980 and now includes 26 sites. The achievements include contributions to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, to ecological manipulation experiments, to bringing decisionmakers and researchers together, and to mechanistic understanding of long-term ecological changes.


BioScience, published monthly, is the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS; BioScience is a forum for integrating the life sciences that publishes commentary and peer-reviewed articles. The journal has been published since 1964. AIBS is an umbrella organization for professional scientific societies and organizations that are involved with biology. It represents nearly 160 member societies and organizations. The article by Fountain and colleagues is available during the month of April at

The complete list of peer-reviewed articles in the April 2012 issue of BioScience is as follows.

Special Section on the Long-Term Ecological Research Network:

Long-Term Ecological Research in a Human-Dominated World. G. Philip Robertson, Scott L. Collins, David R. Foster, Nicholas Brokaw, Hugh W. Ducklow, Ted L. Gragson, Corinna Gries, Stephen K. Hamilton, A. David McGuire, John C. Moore, Emily H. Stanley, Robert B. Waide, and Mark W. Williams

Science and Society: The Role of Long-Term Studies in Environmental Stewardship. Charles T. Driscoll, Kathleen F. Lambert, F. Stuart Chapin III, David J. Nowak, Thomas A. Spies, Frederick J. Swanson, David B. Kittredge, and Clarisse M. Hart

Scenario Studies as a Synthetic and Integrative Research Activity for Long-Term Ecological Research. Jonathan R. Thompson, Arnim Wiek, Frederick J. Swanson, Stephen R. Carpenter, Nancy Fresco, Teresa Hollingsworth, Thomas A. Spies, and David R. Foster

Past, Present, and Future Roles of Long-Term Experiments in the LTER Network. Alan K. Knapp, Melinda D. Smith, Sarah E. Hobbie, Scott L. Collins, Timothy J. Fahey, Gretchen J. A. Hansen, Douglas A. Landis, Kimberly J. La Pierre, Jerry M. Melillo, Timothy R. Seastedt, Gaius R. Shaver, and Jackson R. Webster

Ecosystem Processes and Human Influences Regulate Streamflow Response to Climate Change at Long-Term Ecological Research Sites. Julia A. Jones, Irena F. Creed, Kendra L. Hatcher, Robert J. Warren, Mary Beth Adams, Melinda H. Benson, Emery Boose, Warren A. Brown, John L. Campbell, Alan Covich, David W. Clow, Clifford N. Dahm, Kelly Elder, Chelcy R. Ford, Nancy B. Grimm, Donald L. Henshaw, Kelli L. Larson, Evan S. Miles, Kathleen M. Miles, Stephen D. Sebestyen, Adam T. Spargo, Asa B. Stone, James M. Vose, and Mark W. Williams.

The Disappearing Cryosphere: Impacts and Ecosystem Responses to Rapid Cryosphere Loss. Andrew G. Fountain, John L. Campbell, Edward A. G. Schuur, Sharon E. Stammerjohn, Mark W. Williams, and Hugh W. Ducklow

Other articles:

A Faculty-Development Model for Transforming Introductory Biology and Ecology Courses. Charlene D'Avanzo, Charles W. Anderson, Laurel M. Hartley, and Nancy Pelaez

A Perspective on Modern Pesticides, Pelagic Fish Declines, and Unknown Ecological Resilience in Highly Managed Ecosystems. Nathaniel L. Scholz, Erica Fleishman, Larry Brown, Inge Werner, Michael L. Johnson, Marjorie L. Brooks, Carys L. Mitchelmore, and Daniel Schlenk

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