Story at a glance
- Beavers have begun migrating further north, now infiltrating the Arctic tundra of Alaska.
- Scientists say the move could be attributed to climate change, as the Arctic recorded a record high temperature in 2020.
- Beavers are considered a keystone species who are capable of heavily influencing streams, rivers and lakes in North America.
Climate change isn’t only creating more extreme weather events like wildfires and hurricanes — scientists say that beavers have shifted their environments and are also contributing to an acceleration of a warming planet.
Using satellite imagery and older aerial photography, scientists have discovered that North American beavers have moved further north in the Arctic tundra of Alaska. They’ve created more than 12,000 ponds in western Alaska, which is a doubling of beaver ponds in the last 20 years.
That’s dangerous, as beavers are considered a keystone species who are capable of heavily influencing streams, rivers and lakes in North America and also in Europe and South America. They are known to dramatically change landscapes they inhabit by harvesting shrubs, saplings and trees, which they use to construct dams and inundate surrounding landscapes that create a beaver-friendly watery world.
Ken Tape, an ecologist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks and co-author of the new research, told the Guardian that, “those ponds absorb heat better, they change the hydrology of the area and the permafrost responds to that. Beavers are coming in from the outside, imposing themselves on the ecosystem and disrupting it.”
Scientists are still trying to understand what’s driving so many beavers further north, estimating that climate change could also be a factor. As the planet warms, temperatures in the Arctic, once a reliably frozen region, have succumbed to heat. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that between October and December 2020, the Arctic recorded the warmest temperature on record dating back to 1900 and it continues to warm more than twice as fast as the rest of the globe.
Warming ice implies there’s greater aqueous habitat, which is exactly what beavers are looking for. Scientists also warned that thawing of permafrost, permanently frozen grounds common in high mountains and in high latitudes like much of the Alaskan tundra, associated with beaver ponds would initially release carbon and methane.
Releasing even more greenhouse gasses into the environment would exacerbate climate change further.
Local communities in Alaska have also noted the abundance of beavers, and many are concerned for resources like fish, water quality and boat access. In an area of northwest Alaska, scientists found that beavers are the dominant factor, at 66 percent, controlling increases in surface water extent, which thaws underlying permafrost as it overwhelms tundra vegetation.
The Arctic Beaver Observation Network was established in order to understand the scale, dynamics and effects of beaver engineering in the Arctic tundra. The group plans to discuss the issues happening in Alaska during its first meeting in March this year.
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