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The Arctic's Ponds Are Disappearing Even As the Region Melts

Mar 14, 2015 06:17 PM EDT

New research has revealed that the Arctic is losing its ponds, with the important habitats shrinking more every day. This may seem like a strange revelation for some, as past research has revealed that the Arctic continues to melt in the wake of climate change. Wouldn't more melt water mean more ponds? Now, a pair of researchers explain what's really going on.

"Plants are taking over shallow ponds because they're becoming warm and nutrient-rich," Christian Anderson, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at El Paso, said in a recent statement. "Before you know it, boom, the pond is gone."

Anderson, with the help of colleague and biological science expert Vanessa Lougheed, recently passed more than 2,800 Arctic tundra pounds in the northern region of Alaska's Barrow Peninsula. Using historical photos and satellite imagery dating back all the way to 1948, the pair determined that the number of ponds in the region has decreased by about 17 percent. And the average size of each individual pond dropped by about a third.

The results were published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences.

Anderson added that this is "a very conservative estimate because we didn't consider ponds that had divided, or split into two ponds."

"Some ponds are elongated and as they shrink over time, they can be divided into two or more smaller ponds," he explained.

And as was mentioned, encroaching vegetation is likely the cause of all this shrinking and splitting, finally finding a foothold in parts of the Arctic that have long been locked up in permafrost. With warming global temperatures, this permafrost is melting, freeing soil and the key nutrients within it.

But how exactly is that a bad thing? More plants in the Arctic sounds like a boon for experts concerned about climate change and the greenhouse gasses that cause it, especially as plant life across the Earth serves as our primary carbon sink.

However, Anderson argues that the role of ponds in the Arctic should not be taken lightly, and their disappearance can disrupt the already declining ecosystems that can be found there.

"History tells us that ponds tend to enlarge over hundreds of years and eventually become lakes," he explained. "Ponds shape much of this landscape in the long run, and with no ponds there will be no lakes for this region."

This could in-turn not only take away essential habitats for local fauna, but migratory birds as well, as the ponds across the Barrow Peninsula have long served as essential rest-stops for migratory birds. If this region grows direr, such as is happening in other parts of the world, a stunning number of migratory birds could face decline and even extinction.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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