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Wind Erosion and Arctic Tundra: Carbon Effects

Aug 12, 2015 10:36 PM EDT
This is a village on the western Greenland coast called Atammik.
Strong winds in western Greenland are laying bare large swaths of tundra, affecting its grazing worth for many animals--and carbon storage and nutrient cycling.
(Photo : Wikimedia Commons)

Fragile arctic soil is blowing in the wind, say researchers from Dartmouth College in a study recently reported in the journal Annals of the Association of American Geographers.

Essentially, strong winds along the Greenland Ice Sheet are causing erosion to vegetation and soil in the nearby tundra. This means there is less of it for caribou and other grazing animals, which affects carbon storage and the cycling of nutrients, according to a release.

Already, arctic soils are threatened by wildfire, damage from permafrost, and other climate-related disturbances. Wind-driven soil erosion has been less documented, particularly in western Greenland, as the release noted.

"Understanding the current distribution of wind-eroded patches is a first step toward a more complete picture of regional wind erosion and its ecological impacts, especially as the Arctic continues to experience rapid environmental change and warming temperatures," said lead author Ruth Heindel, a Ph.D. student at Dartmouth and a fellow in the IGERT Polar Environmental Change program, in the release.

In the study, scientists analyzed wind erosion by using satellite images and remote sensing techniques. They looked at bare ground patches near the ice sheet in western Greenland, the release said.

They learned that 22 percent of the land studied was bare, ranging from 100 square feet to more than 1,000 square feet. The pattern was that patches were more widespread near the ice sheet--but away from the ice sheet they were limited to steep slopes facing south. The finding: Strong winds running downslope off the ice sheet cause most of the soil erosion, the release noted.

Wind erosion may also be limiting shrub spread by making a better habitat for grasses or lichen, cyanobacteria and microfungi. Researchers are currently working on an analysis of soil erosion changes over time, said the release.

Follow Catherine on Twitter at @TreesWhales

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