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Climate Change Shifts Arctic Animals' Seasonal Movements

A NASA-funded study analyzed the tracked movements of more than a hundred species since 1991.

Seasonal cues play a vital role in the Arctic ecosystem. Warmer spring temperatures and cooler temperatures in the fall tell animals when to migrate, when to mate, and where they should go to find food.

A new study partly funded by NASA delves into the effect climate change is having on these animals by analyzing the changes in their movements over the course of three decades as temperatures have gradually increased in the Arctic.

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'Extreme indications' of climate change

The researchers analyzed data from the Arctic Animal Movement Archive (AAMA), a collection of data from more than 200 research studies tracking nearly a hundred species from 1991 to the present day.

The movement data was studied in combination with NASA temperature, rainfall, snowfall, and topographic data. 

The team found that Arctic animals' movement patterns are shifting in several different ways, resulting in a knock-on effect that could disrupt entire ecosystems.

"The Arctic is showing more extreme indications of climate change," said Gil Bohrer, a professor and environmental engineer at Ohio State University in Columbus, explained in a NASA press release.

"Arctic animals are responding to these changes, they’re responding quickly, and that response is not equal," Bohrer continued.

Climate Change Shifts Arctic Animals' Seasonal Movements
Timelapse shows the movement patterns for various animals over the course of a year. Source: NASA/Roland Kays/North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences/Davidson et al.

Three animal movement studies

The team focused on three main studies: a long-term analysis of eagle migrations, a massive study on caribou populations, and a multi-species study focusing on several predator and prey species. 

The researchers found that the eagles have been migrating, on average, half a day earlier every year since the study began. The caribou study, meanwhile showed that certain caribou populations were adapting to the changes in their environment and were having offspring earlier to coincide with the shift in climate.

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Bohrer explains that some species, individuals, and populations will likely benefit from climate change, while others will be harmed.

"The fact that we see changes is showing that something big is going on," Bohrer says. "More and more, the ecosystem that should be tightly coordinated is getting out of whack."

In order to try to determine the full impact of climate change on these populations, the researchers mean to continue monitoring the populations from the AAMA database.

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