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Gnawing beavers could accelerate thawing of Arctic permafrost

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June 30 (UPI) — The Arctic’s permafrost could begin to thaw more rapidly as beavers in Alaska continue to proliferate.

According to a new study, published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Research Letters, beaver numbers are up across Alaska’s Arctic tundra, and they’re building more and more dams, creating new bodies of water.

The big, sharp buck teeth of the beaver help the industrious mammals fell trees and shrubs to construct homes and dams, flooding valleys and creating new ponds and lakes — transforming landscapes. Few animals can alter their environs with the efficiency of the beaver.

“Their methods are extremely effective,” study co-author Ingmar Nitze, scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute’s Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research, said in a news release.

Nitze and his colleagues have been actively monitoring Arctic tundra to better understand the how climate change is affecting the region’s permafrost and its ability to store carbon.

But climate isn’t the only variable. As temperatures have warmed in recent decades, the Arctic has become increasingly green. With more shrubs and small trees to eat, beavers have moved farther north into the Arctic Circle.

In 2018, Nitze and other researchers reported beavers living in a 7,000-square-mile section of northwest Alaska had created 56 new lakes in only five years. The latest research, which focused on two different plots of land in Alaska, suggests beavers have continued to spread

“Of course, we knew that the beavers there had spread substantially over the last few decades,” said Nitze. “But we never would have dreamed they would seize the opportunity so intensively.”

In a plot measuring 38 square miles, near the town of Kotzebue, satellite images confirmed the creation of an average of five new beaver dams per year between 2002 and 2019 — a 5,000 percent increase in less than two decades. Scientists documented similar dam construction rates across the entire northern Baldwin Peninsula.

“We’re seeing exponential growth there. The number of these structures doubles roughly every four years,” Nitze said.

Researchers found beavers prefer to take advantage of drained lake beds.

“The animals have intuitively found that damming the outlet drainage channels at the sites of former lakes is an efficient way to create habitat,” said lead study author Benjamin Jones, researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “So a new lake is formed which degrades ice-rich permafrost in the basin, adding to the effect of increasing the depth of the engineered water body.”

Researchers found the water area in the Kotzebue region grew by 8.3 percent between 2002 and 2019. These more expansive and deeper lakes are warmer than the surrounding tundra, and researchers worry the increasing number of beaver-built lakes in the region will accelerate the melting of Arctic permafrost.

Jones, Nitze and their colleagues plan to investigate the spread of beavers across the Canadian Arctic.

“Anyone who wants to predict the future of the permafrost should be sure to keep the beaver in mind,” Nitze said.



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Citizen scientists help improve space weather forecasts

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Sept. 18 (UPI) — Data collected by citizen scientists have helped space weather forecasters more accurately predict when Earth will get hit by solar storms, according to a study published Friday in the journal AGU Advances.

When researchers supplement computer models with citizen scientist-collected data on the size and shape of coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, forecasts were 20 more accurate.

The supplemental data, collected by volunteers through the Solar Stormwatch citizen science project, also reduced forecasting uncertainty by 15 percent.

“CMEs are sausage-shaped blobs made up of billions of tonnes of magnetized plasma that erupt from the sun’s atmosphere at a million miles an hour,” lead researcher Luke Barnard said in a news release.

“They are capable of damaging satellites, overloading power grids and exposing astronauts to harmful radiation,” said Barnard, space weather scientist at the University of Reading in Britain. “Predicting when they are on a collision course with Earth is therefore extremely important.”

Because the speed and trajectory of coronal mass ejections vary dramatically, scientists have struggled to accurately predict when and where solar storms will hit Earth.

“Solar storm forecasts are currently based on observations of CMEs as soon as they leave the Sun’s surface, meaning they come with a large degree of uncertainty,” Barnard said. “The volunteer data offered a second stage of observations at a point when the CME was more established, which gave a better idea of its shape and trajectory.”

Researchers say the study supports the deployment of wide-field CME imaging cameras on space weather monitoring missions.

Real-time analysis of the images provided by the spacecraft cameras could help forecasters pinpoint solar storm threats days in advance, they said.



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Ancient footprints in Saudi Arabia help researchers track human migrations out of Africa

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Sept. 18 (UPI) — Paleontologists have discovered a diverse assemblage of 120,000-year-old human and animal footprints in an ancient lake deposit in Saudi Arabia’s Nefud Desert, offering new insights into the trajectories of human migrations out of Africa, according to a study published Friday in the journal Science Advances.

A mounting body of evidence, compiled and published over the last two decades, has upended early theories that humans migrated out of Africa in one or two giant waves.

“As more and more fossils are discovered, it seems that humans repeatedly dispersed out of Africa and did so much earlier than previously thought,” study co-author Mathew John Stewart told UPI in an email.

“Precisely when, how often and under what conditions remain open questions,” said Stewart, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany.

For answers to these questions, researchers have mostly looked to Africa and Eurasia, ignoring the Arabian Peninsula. Though it neighbors both Africa and Asia, evidence of human occupation in the region is scant.

“The area today is a hyper-arid desert, characterized by very little rainfall and large, expansive sand dunes,” Stewart said. “The conditions are not very amenable to the preservation of material and sediments. Significant erosion of sediments and the subsequent destruction of material, such as fossil remains, is unfortunately common.”

Paleoclimate data suggests that Arabia wasn’t always as dry as it was today, and a scattering of fossil discoveries has confirmed that humans were able to make forays into the Arabian interior when shifts in climate turned the peninsula’s deserts into grassland.

The ancient footprints found in the Nefud Desert, fossilized in an ancient lake deposit known as ‘Alathar’ — Arabic for “the trace” — suggests humans made one of those forays roughly 120,000 years ago.

“The age of the footprints are consistent with Homo sapiens fossils in the Levant, and suggests that there were multiple routes that humans took upon expanding beyond Africa,” study co-author Richard Clark-Wilson told UPI in an email.

“There is earlier evidence for our species moving into the Mediterranean environment of the Levant and southern Greece, but this is the earliest evidence of our species moving into a semi-arid grassland as Arabia would have been,” said Clark-Wilson, a postgraduate research student at Royal Holloway in Britain.

In addition to human footprints, researchers uncovered footprints left by elephants, horses and hippos, suggesting Homo sapiens weren’t the only species drawn to the open grasslands and water resources of northern Arabia. Research suggests it’s possible humans were following animals when they first moved into the region.

“Whats exciting about the animal footprints is that it closely ties human and animal movements around lakes in northern Arabia,” Stewart said. “Unlike most other records, footprints provide very high-resolution information, on the order of hours or days. Also, the animal footprints provide information on what the environment and ecology was like when these people were moving through the landscape.”

While the discovery of ancient footprints in Arabia suggests human movements out of Africa extended eastward into northern Arabia, Stewart said plenty of questions remain unanswered.

“Precisely what happened to these people during the more arid periods? How long did they occupy the Arabian interior? Where did they go?”



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Study: Commercial fisheries regularly catch threatened, endangered fish species

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Sept. 21 (UPI) — Despite Australia’s international reputation for high quality marine conservation programming, new research out of the University of Queensland suggests Australia’s seafood eaters are regularly consuming engendered species.

The findings, published Monday in the journal Nature Communications, suggest the consumption of endangered fish species isn’t just a problem Down Under — it is a global crisis.

When researchers surveyed commercial catch and seafood import data, they found 92 endangered and 11 critically endangered species of seafood are being caught elsewhere before being imported and sold at grocery stores, fish markets and restaurants in Australia, Europe and elsewhere.

That’s because it’s perfectly legal for commercial fishers to catch species threatened with extinction. Additionally, seafood is not required to be labeled according to its species.

“This means that the ‘fish’, ‘flake’ or ‘cod’ that Australians typically order at the fish and chip shop could be critically endangered,” lead researcher Leslie Roberson said in a news release.

“Australian seafood is not as sustainable as consumers would like to think, and it’s definitely not in line with many of the large international conservation agreements that Australia has signed to protect threatened species and ecosystems,” said Roberson, a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland.

Home to the Great Barrier Reef and tremendous marine biodiversity, Australia has earned a reputation for progressive marine conservation programming.

But according to the latest study, unsustainable seafood importation and consumption patterns can undermine conservation efforts at home.

“Australia imports around 75 per cent of the seafood we consume and is internationally regarded as having effective conservation and fisheries management policies,” said study co-author Carissa Klein.

“When importing seafood from other places, we are displacing any social or environmental problems associated with fishing to that place, which is likely to have less capacity to sustainably manage its ocean,” Klein, senior research fellow at the University of Queensland.

According to Roberson, Klein and their colleagues, the estimates for the number of threatened species currently being caught by commercial fisheries are quite conservative.

The study authors suggest that part of the problem is that the international seafood trade is highly complex, making it difficult to track and regulate. One part of a fish may be processed in China, but the rest may go to Europe, they said.

“A typical situation might look something like — a fishing boat operating in Australian waters, owned by a Chinese company, with a crew of fishermen from the Philippines,” Roberson said. “We don’t know what we’re eating — it’s really hard to trace seafood back to its origin and species because the industry is such a mess.”

Researchers suggest trade and importation rules can be put in place to encourage Australians to eat more local seafood, which can be more easily regulated for sustainability. Australian-farmed abalone and wild-caught sardines are two seafood sources that could ease pressures on threatened fish species.

“Improving the sustainability of Australia’s seafood trade policies could significantly benefit the ocean worldwide, as well as the billions of people that depend on a healthy ocean for their health and livelihoods,” Klein said.

“It should be illegal to eat something that is threatened by extinction, especially species that are critically endangered — if we can better coordinate fisheries and conservation policies, we can prevent it from happening,” she said.



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