Global warming taking toll on northern Russia's ecosystem

A household waste disposal site on Volkhonskoye Highway, Leningrad Region. Source: TASS

A household waste disposal site on Volkhonskoye Highway, Leningrad Region. Source: TASS

With average temperatures in the Russian North for the next 6 months set to be 1-1.5 degrees warmer than average, birds and fish will have to adapt to the constant change, altering their habits and habitats.

The average temperature on the Kola Peninsula in the northwestern part of Russia increases every 10 years by 0.6 degrees. Meteorologists have been registering these changes for the last 40 years. Throughout 2014 the temperature was higher than the climatic norm.

"We are now witnessing a stable climate warming, and on the Kola Peninsula its speed is a bit higher than in the rest of Russia,” said Yelena Siekkinen, a senior meteorologist at the Murmansk Hydro-meteorological Center.

“Up north on the Spitsbergen Archipelago the warming is even more apparent. In February 2014 the temperature strayed from the norm by 12 degrees. We had never seen such an aberration."

This year will not be an exception. According to forecasts, except for October the air temperature will be up to 1.5 degrees higher than usual. Scientists have still not decided whether to call this change global warming or simply a natural fluctuation.

However, there is something that they all agree on. The increase in temperature has already affected the ecosystem of the Barents Sea, which borders the peninsula to the north, as well as a part of Norway, and is the center of commercial fishing in the area. The number of birds on the coast has decreased, something that upsets the balance in other places around the world.

Seagulls migrate to the cities

The inhabitants of the Barents Sea depend on the water temperature. A perfect example is the capelin, a small fish living in the northern waters. When its usual environment gets warmer, the fish migrates to the east of the Barents Sea, where the water is cooler.

This means that the birds in the East remain without food, especially since they have serious competition from fishermen. These birds abandon their homes when searching for food and settle along the entire coast, yet their ability to multiply shrinks significantly.

"Currently, western colonies of birds are degrading and can completely disappear," warns Alexei Ezhov, a researcher at the Murmansk Marine Biology Institute. "In the last 14 years western colonies of the Rybachy Peninsula on the north of the Kola Peninsula have diminished by half, down to 25,000 nesting pairs. The birds include the Kittiwake, the Guillemot, the Razorbill and large Gulls."

Seagulls, however, have found a solution to the problem. They migrate to the cities, closer to man and feed at dumping grounds. "Before there weren't so many seagulls in the city," Ezhov says. "But due to the fall in levels of fish in the Barents Sea, birds are forced to migrate to unusual territories and look for new sources of food."

The decrease in the number of birds on the coast of the Barents Sea also upsets the natural balance in other parts of the globe where the birds spend the winter such as the shores of England, Scotland and the eastern and northern shores of America. "There, the untraditional types of birds force out the traditional ones and the balance between the old and the new is disrupted," adds Ezhov.

Fish move to the North

For some inhabitants of the Barents Sea the warm water has turned out to be salubrious. For example, there has never been as much cod as there is now. In 2012 the level of spawning biomass as in the number of mature males and females, reached the historic maximum of 1.6-2 million tons that was registered in 1995.

"We are not afraid for the main commercial types of fish," says Konstantin Sokolov, director of the Laboratory of Coastal Research at the Polar Scientific Institute of Fishery and Oceanography. "The only exception is the scallop, but in this case the reasons are natural."

The cod feels so comfortable in these new conditions that it is beginning to explore new territories, even moving to the north of the Barents Sea and higher than the Spitsbergen Archipelago. The Norwegian Consul General Andreas Lindeman presented this phenomenon at a climate change seminar in September 2014.

In 2012 the cod spread as far north as 82 degrees on the northern latitude, which is more north than the Franz Josef Land. Whether fisherman should travel so far to catch fish remains an unanswered question.

Currently scientists are trying to determine the changes caused by natural forces and the ones caused by man. Scientists are also trying to figure out where to draw the line of when to get involved and when to let nature fend for itself.

"We must know how much all these changes affect the balance of the ecosystem," says Dmitri Ishkulov, the deputy director of science at the Murmansk Marine Biology Institute. "Whatever is harmful to nature will sooner or later also affect man."

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