Living on the Edge: Biodiversity of the Polar Regions

Text & photos by Rituraj Phukan


An explorer and environmental writer from Northeast India visits the Arctic and Antarctic region and documents the iconic species of the area ravaged by rapid climate change.

The polar regions are warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. In the Arctic, parts of the Svalbard archipelago have warmed by an average of 5 degree centigrade in just over two decades. The loss of sea ice, permafrost melting, ocean acidification and sea level rise has had a profound impact on polar ecosystems.


This photo essay is a compilation of observations and images from three expeditions to the Arctic region and one to Antarctica. These iconic species represent the biodiversity of the remotest places on Earth now ravaged by rapid climatic changes.


The world’s repository of biodiversity at Longyearbyen

Global Seed Vault


The Global Seed Vault being repaired in June 2019 after unexpected flooding in October 2016. Also known as the Doomsday Vault, it was built as a backup for humanity with millions of seeds and features to preserve major food crops for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, high temperatures and heavy rainfall caused a damage to the infrastructure less than 10 years after its inauguration.


The Wild Arctic

The Arctic Council’s biodiversity working group has reported the modification of habitats, ecosystems, and populations of arctic wildlife and shifts in their geographic ranges. Other documented impacts include changes in the timing of ecological events like flowering, migration and breeding, and disease outbreaks affecting plants and animals. The 2016 Arctic Resilience Report described nineteen regime shifts that have already made an enormous impact on native wildlife, climate stability, and the people who depend on both.


Arctic seabirds, including black guillemots and ivory gulls, have had to adjust their hunting grounds dramatically as a result of rising temperatures and melting sea ice, and the impact these environmental changes have had on the fish that the birds feed upon, both in the Arctic and beyond.


Black Guillemot, Spitbergen, 2019


The caribou, or reindeer, provides another interesting example of how warming affects biodiversity in northern climates. Ecologists from the James Hutton Institute, Norwegian Institute for Nature Research and Norwegian University of Life Sciences, have found that reindeer in Svalbard are literally shrinking in response to climate change.


The Svalbard Reindeer, 2019


The rains are bad news for the Svalbard Reindeer; once the water freezes over, the hard ice makes the plants inaccessible to the herbivores accustomed to digging through soft snow. There were over 200 reported deaths by starvation during June 2019, during the weeks I was exploring the Svalbard region.


Svalbard Reindeer, 2019


The Walrus is the elephant of the arctic! I saw them as lazy and somnolent with hilariously endearing antics. Rapidly changing conditions are also a potentially serious threat to walruses. They like to rest on sea ice located directly over prime feeding areas but are now often stranded at coastal sites because of late-season ice formation.


The Walrus, Spitsbergen 2019


Walruses also face an uncertain future with expected decrease in food availability. Sea ice decline is connected to documented declines among clam populations that are critical prey for walruses. Besides, ocean acidification reduces the saturation state of carbonate ions in the water, which can affect the growth, development and survival of calcifying invertebrates that are the major prey of walruses.


Walrus Colony, Spitsbergen, 2019


'Delphinapterus leucas' literally translates to "white dolphin without wings" which alludes to the fact that they do not have dorsal fins. The fate of these iconic Arctic animals is connected to sea ice in more ways than one. With large parts of the Arctic remaining ice-free for longer periods, there have been increased reports of killer whale sightings, making the slow-moving animals more vulnerable to predation.



Belugas in the Bay, Churchill, 2015


With the sea ice becoming increasingly unstable, the chances of these whales being trapped has increased. In recent years, the Beluga Whales have been sighted in unexpected areas, and studies connect the straying from migration routes to changes in sea ice extents.


Beluga Whale, Svalbard, 2019


The scientific name Ursus maritimus is Sea Bear in Latin. According to Inuit mythology, it is the 'Pihoqahiak,' the "ever-wandering one." Polar bears are actually black! They have black skin to better soak in the sun's warmth under the white coat of fur. These marine mammals are among the worst affected by climate change, with the land literally melting beneath their paws.


Polar Bear, Spitsbergen 2019


Polar bears rely largely on seals for sustenance and with the continuing loss of sea ice, along with additional stressors like low genetic diversity, human habitation, industrial activities, toxic substances in their food web, and reduced populations of potential prey, these bears are likely to completely disappear from the southern Arctic ranges within thirty to forty years, and some studies predict that two-thirds of the global population will be completely wiped out by mid-century.


The Polar Bear, Churchill, 2015


The Polar Bear Jail

Churchill is the Polar Bear Capital of the World; every year thousands of Polar Bears are forced ashore to Churchill when the ice in the Hudson Bay melts. The Hudson Bay populations are literally feeling the heat, with early melt of the ice cover and late freezing. With the decrease in the 'feeding window' straying into town is common. There is a Polar Bear Alert Program to protect people, Polar Bear Jail for bears that stray into town repeatedly, bear warnings and bear guards that follow you everywhere. Welcome to Polar Bear country.


Polar Bear Jail, Churchill

Warming and the Penguins of Antarctica

The fragile Antarctic ecosystems are being undermined by rapid warming, thereby threatening the long-term survival of marine species in the southern polar region.

Krill is the primary food source for many marine species, including the Antarctic toothfish, and the krill population has declined substantially around the West Antarctic Peninsula as a result of climate change, as well as the rise in ultraviolet radiation thanks to the depletion of the ozone layer and a diminished supply of algae beneath sea ice. The Adélie and Chinstrap penguin population decline has also been attributed to the decrease in sea ice and the corresponding krill population.


Adele Penguine (Left) and Chinstrap Penguin (Right) Antarctica 2013


Some species have actually benefitted from the reduction in sea ice. One example is the Gentoo penguin, which has a much more flexible diet and their numbers have grown in recent decades.


Gentoo Penguin, Antarctica, 2013


And finally, the elephant of the Antarctic!

Southern Elephant Seal, Antarctica, 2013


Studies have shown that less ice has meant more elephant seal pups in the breeding colonies around Antarctica. These seals once colonized areas thousands of miles south, during an earlier period of warming about 7,500 years ago, and they only returned north when the open waters froze after a few thousand years. Incidentally, some scientists are attaching tiny sensors to the heads of these deep-diving seals so they can learn more about Antarctic warming from warm waters below the surface.


Warming and Biodiversity of the World

Our planet has experienced relatively stable climate for the past 10,000 years and all lifeforms have evolved to exist within certain environmental parameters. Unprecedented and abrupt climatic changes in recent decades has disrupted the natural ecosystems that harbour life. Global warming has created new adaptation challenges for biodiversity and in the process, most species are likely to lose out, unable to adapt fast enough to the change in their living environment.


“Biodiversity starts in the distant past and it points toward the future,” said Frans Lanting. We have lost more than half of the animals on our planet in the last 40 years. Up to 50% of all species could be lost this century, including many amphibians, which survived the extinction dinosaurs. If species that have been on Earth for over 250 million years are now being driven towards extinction, it cannot be good news for others, including humans.


About the Author:

Rituraj Phukan is an environmental writer with personal experience of climate change impacts at the polar regions. His wrote the chapter on ‘biodiversity impacts’ of warming in the Amazon no.1 Bestseller book Climate Abandoned. His blog C.A.R.E. Climate Awareness Report for Earth focuses on related issues. He can be reached at rrajphukan@gmail.com.

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