Arctic at risk from invasive species
As the Arctic ice melts, new shipping routes are opening up for tourism, mining and other commercial purposes, cutting journey times and fuel costs. And as Christopher Ware reports, a new danger arises - invasive alien species disrupting fragile Arctic ecosystems...
More shipping is sailing through thawing Arctic waters, but while these northern routes might provide opportunities for tourism, mining and cutting down delivery times, the ships may also carry stowaways on board, introducing invasive species to pristine Arctic waters.
These findings were recently published in the journal Diversity and Distributions, from research by myself and colleagues at Tromso University Museum in Norway, University of Tasmania in Australia, and Aarhus University in Denmark. The study focused on the Svalbard archipelago in the Norwegian high-Arctic - best known for being home to the northernmost post office in the world and some 3,000 polar bears.
Invasive species have traditionally been a problem at lower latitudes; this study considered whether a growing amount of human activity in the Arctic and climate change might bring about a species invasion in the far north.
Wherever humans have traveled over the past centuries they have, deliberately or accidentally, taken creatures and plants with them. Exotic grasses now grow on Antarctica, European crabs live on both North American coasts, and Australia is filled with many millions of non-native rabbits, boar, toads and camels.
By filling and discharging ballast tanks, organisms are sucked in, transported and then deposited in other parts of the world, as are creatures that live on the bottom of the ship’s hull. Ships are responsible for most of world’s spread of invasive marine species.
Svalbard has experienced increased shipping over recent decades from tourism, scientific research, and mining. The ports there are far from the scale of those in Rotterdam or Singapore - there are more snow mobiles delivered to Svalbard every year than there are ships visiting - but nevertheless more than 500m tons of ballast water are discharged off Svalbard every year, from some of the 200 visiting vessels.
This means that, together with findings that Arctic oceans are warming faster than others, the region may soon lose the isolation and climatic barriers that have kept new species from invading.
Our research focused on what connections shipping visiting Svalbard has made with the rest of the world.
Read more from our affiliate, The Ecologist.
Arctic shipping image via Shutterstock.