The magic of the Artic

Wildlife

As long as we have water, where fish swim As long as we have lands, where reindeer graze and wander As long as we have grounds, where wild animals hide Then we have consolation on this earth….

When our homes have been destroyed and our lands devastated -where will we live?

Our lands, our livlihood have dwindled the lakes have risen the rivers have run dry the streams sing with sorrowful voises the lands blacken, verdure wilts the birds become silent and flee All the good things we have received do not touch ourhearts What should have made our lives easier has become worthless

Hard stone roads make our movements painful The peace in the people of the wilderness cries in their hearts In the rush of time our blood is thinned our unison shattered water ceases to roar

Poem by the Saami, Paulus Utsi Translated by: Margaret Rainey

Global warming, which many still argue is not caused by man, does exist. I see evidence of it every day.
In recent years the winters have been becoming shorter- the glaciers are disappearing and the animals find it difficult to adjust to the new forced pace of life. The tundra – or the typical vegetation of the arctic polar region – which is rich in mosses and lichens, is in danger. During the summer months the top surface of the soil in this land is marshy and this allows some plants to grow there. However, its subsoil is instead characterized by meters of ice which acts as a cap holding in methane and other gases emitted from deep inside the earth.

Since the Arctic summers are becoming warmer and drier as a result of global warming, fires are becoming more and more common, even on the edge of the North Pole. Other authors of the study of global warming, who work at the Institute of Arctic Biology in Fairbanks Alaska, have observed that if the frequency of these fires has long intervals in between, from 80 to 150 years, the tundra has time to regenerate. But if these fires occur more and more frequently, such as in recent years, it is unlikely that the vegetation will be able to get back to its original state.

It seems that the tundra, as it stands at present, has only been on earth for the last two million years, it existed before the succession of ice ages but following a general and prolonged cooling of the planet. The species of animals and plants who survived well in this type of climate probably originated from high mountainous areas.

These organisms are still found in the tundra because it is a favorable environment for them  and is very similar to that of their origins. Originating from the mountainous areas, the plants and animals that survive in cold and arid desert environments colonized the new colder climate and existed perfectly. Every time the Earth experiences a general cooling, the tundra expands its lands to occupy lower latitudes, and then retreats during the warmer interglacial periods.

The tundra, which is rich in lichens, has proven to be very useful for the study of the diffusion of pollutants in the world: the wind, in fact, carries the poisons everywhere, even thousands of miles. Lichens are excellent biomarkers, which are natural signals that allow us to recognize the deterioration of the balance of the environment. Air pollution can be kept under control through the study of lichens, which are organizations formed by the symbiosis between a fungus and an alga; together they are able to deal with difficult climatic and environmental conditions and to colonize inhospitable places. Symbiosis is an association between different organisms that is beneficial to all its members. In the case of lichens, the fungus provides the algae with water and in exchange the alga shares with the fungus sugars which it produces through photosynthesis. Living in extremely poor in nutrients, lichens absorb everything they can. Unfortunately they can absorb even harmful substances that over time can lead to their death. The analysis of lichens can provide us with interesting information on the presence of pollutants in the environment. Even the reindeer are good bio-indicators, since they feed on lichens. The researchers follow the reindeer as they seek new pastures and monitor their state of health. The vegetation of the tundra is made up of almost exclusively perennials, from camefite (a woody or herbaceous perennial) and hemicryptophytes (herbaceous perennials). The camefite  is reminiscent of the ericaceous plants and saxifrage (a holarctic perennial), while amongst the hemicryptophytes the family of sedges (a perennial plant that resembles grass and grows in moist conditions) dominates. Shrubs, birch trees and willow trees, are rare in this area as they are normally too small to withstand the cold and strong winds. In humid areas, where the soil is soaked in water, mosses and rushes grow, particularly a special moss called peat moss (a type of moss which has adapted to live perfectly in swampy environments).

Despite the low temperatures, the tundra is home to many animal species. Many animals migrate to avoid the colder months. Others, however, have evolved complex defense systems against the frost that allows them to survive in the tundra during the long, cold winter nights. Hibernation is not possible in the tundra, because the frozen ground does not allow the excavation of tunnels and shelters and because the summer is too short to ensure a sufficient accumulation of food reserves.
Many small animals, such as lemmings, dig tunnels under the snow to look for food and to escape predators, but the ermine, a small carnivore with their slim and agile bodies, are able to pursue them even in their narrow tunnels.
The Arctic fox hides supplies of frozen meat and feeds during the winter.
Arctic hares take refuge under the snow but they feed on the surface, at the risk of being attacked by foxes. Many species that remain in the tundra in the winter months, such as the willow grouse, arctic fox, arctic hare and the ermine, change color for camouflage. In summer, therefore, they have dark brown and brown fur, while in winter they are as white as snow. Most of the animals avoid the chill of winter by migration. In early summer, in fact, we are witness to the mass return of many species from other areas: the caribou, reindeer, grizzlies and gray wolves, for example, all come from the boreal forests.
The reindeer move together in large herds, the females give birth to their children in the early summer, as soon as they arrive in the tundra. Even the gray wolves are born in the warm months when, chasing the large herbivores, they make their appearance in the tundra.
The birds of the tundra are mostly migratory. Some, such as the willow grouse, move only a short distance away,  whilst others perform journeys of thousands of miles. The Arctic tern travels to the northern tundra all the way from Antarctic

travelling  over 36,000 kms! These geese are perhaps the mos  characteristic birds of the  tundra. There are different species that migrate to spawn spending our cold months down in the Mediterranean, Mexico, Africa or the United States in the south.  A wetlands summer is the ideal environment for many species of insects that survive the winter as eggs. The mosquitoes and flies are so numerous when they hatch that they force the large mammals, such as caribou and musk oxen, to abandon the wetlands to reach higher drier ground. The abundance of summer insects in the tundra attracts many species of small insectivorous birds that migrate to take advantage of their banquet. The birds and lemmings attract merlins, falcons and other birds of prey.

 

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