Tracking the effects of climate change on Arctic animals is no easy task Social Sharing

The climate in the Arctic is rapidly changing and new research offers the first large-scale look at how animal species in the region are adapting.

Built by a team of international researchers, the Arctic Animal Movement Archive pulls together more than 200 animal tracking studies by universities, governments and conservationists from the last 30 years. And a large amount of data came from here in Canada.

“We worked for three years to … bring a lot of people together to create the archive,” said Gil Bohrer, a civil and environmental engineer at Ohio State University and one of the lead authors of the study, which was recently published in the journal Science.

The archive features tracking information collected from GPS devices worn by 86 species that live across the Arctic and subarctic regions from Canada to Greenland to Russia — everything from puffins to wolves to seals. 

Data like that is difficult to obtain, given the costs of getting to the Arctic and the process of tagging animals for long periods. “You need to buy a sensor, which is typically not cheap, and then you need to catch the animal and install the sensor — and you need to be lucky [in order] for that sensor to keep working,” said Bohrer. 

Allicia Kelly, a wildlife biologist for the government of the Northwest Territories, contributed monitoring data on boreal caribou and barren-ground caribou to the archive, two species that are at risk in Canada. She stressed the challenge of collecting this information, as well as the implications for the animals themselves. 

“It’s really intense to capture and collar animals, especially for the animals, so this data that we collect is hard-won, it’s valuable and we have a responsibility to squeeze as much as we can out of it.”

Researchers processed and standardized animal GPS data from the studies done over the last three decades and uploaded it using a program called Movebank.

Analyzing some of the data, researchers found young golden eagles, for example, shifted their migration patterns and some Northern caribou species are giving birth one week earliercompared to a decade ago. 

“This shift in the timing of when they calve has not occurred in the southern populations of our study. So from this we can see how caribou are perhaps adapting to environmental changes,” said Kelly. 

The archive will continue to grow, with some data automatically being added in real time through satellite networks and GPS trackers, so researchers can follow and monitor changes in this changing environment. It’s also in a standard format, so much easier to access.

“There’s different types of equipment that are used across different studies, and sometimes just the process of getting that data together, getting it cleaned so that you can use it in the same way, is really time-consuming,” said Kelly. 

That’s time that could be spent focusing on finding answers to new questions and exploring how these changes in the Arctic will impact not only animals but also local and Indigenous communities who depend on them.

“Understanding how [animals are] responding to threats from climate change and other pressures is really important to be able to mitigate those changes where we are able, or understand and adapt to them as they happen,” said Kelly.

— Tashauna Reid

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