The links between human settlements and the greening of the Arctic

View of our sampling site in Barentsburg, with the disturbed, nutrient-rich soil beneath the dog yard on the left. Simone Fior

The Barentsburg settlement in Svalbard is populated mainly by Russian and Ukrainian miners and their families. Many old wooden houses have fallen into disrepair here, but there are also newer apartment buildings made of precast concrete, as well as a lovely bar that serves excellent traditional Russian cuisine and European dishes.

This content was published on August 21, 2022 – 11:00

Lena Bakker, Sigrid Trier Kjaer and Jana Ruthers

All of today’s settlements in Svalbard originated from coal mining, which began in the early 20th century. Mining is still going on in some settlements. Roads and houses were built and people imported cattle, hay and even land to grow their own vegetables. This was a significant addition to their very limited supply of imported food and relieved some of the pressure on shipping from their home countries of Britain, Russia and Ukraine.

2MB field notes from Svalbard

2MB – that was the daily amount of data our original Antarctica bloggers were allowed to send to us via satellite about their research into microplastics. Data transmission is also limited this summer for Lena Bakker, Sigrid Trier Kjaer and Jana Rüthers (left to right), three other ETH Zurich doctoral students who are heading north to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard to investigate Arctic greening, a process initiated by global warming and locally driven by soil chemistry, thickness and age.

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These settlements, however, disrupted the pristine landscape of the islands, including the displacement and importation of soil, hay and livestock. Imported soil contains higher amounts of nutrients than native soil. As livestock dung and hay decomposed, the soil became increasingly nutritious, providing very different growing conditions for plants and microbiota.

In Longyearbyen, the northernmost permanent settlement in the world, we worked next to an old banished barn. We were able to directly observe a massive change of plant species, compared to the natural tundra, composed mainly of grasses. It was worth noting that the few species of tundra plants that we found on this site grew much larger than in the tundra. Our observations were also confirmed below ground: the soil has a very high organic content similar to peat. We had to dig deeper than expected to reach bedrock. Only a few sites have reached permafrost.

Chrysosplenium tetrandrum growing at our sampling site in Longyearbyen. It is a typical species in disturbed areas with high nutrient inputs.

Our research site in Barentsburg was located under a dog park and was very lush and green. What we found there was simply amazing. Again, the vegetation is mostly grasses, but we even found a few non-native plant species that produced lots of flowers.

Large quantity of yarrow (Achillea millefolium) introduced into our disturbed sampling site in Barentsburg.

Non-native grass species (Alopecurus pratensis) invading natural tundra near our disturbed sampling site in Barentsburg.

When we visit the site again at the end of August, we will know if they have produced seeds and are able to spread widely. So far we have found species that have never been identified on Svalbard before. Surprisingly, we have also observed some of these species in nearby undisturbed tundra, which means they are likely able to compete with native vegetation, with implications still unknown for the whole ecosystem. The soil was completely different, containing large amounts of old hay, sawdust and cattle droppings. This is why the soil is so rich in nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphate, which facilitates the establishment of non-native species.

Typical bioplot (50×50 cm) from our sampling site in Barentsburg, very grassy and lush. On these biological plots, we identified plant species composition, took environmental data such as soil moisture and temperature, and small soil samples for microbial analysis.

Typical soil pit at our sampling site in Barentsburg, where we took samples for subsequent soil analyzes in our laboratory in Zurich.

These places made us think a lot. What will happen to this amazing landscape if the disturbances increase? It is very likely that as the number of tourists increases, the number of introduced non-native species will increase. Tourists bring seeds via dirty shoes or other equipment, such as tents. With the increase in the number of tourists, tourism companies want to go to more and more remote places, so more and more places are at risk.

Our team is working on different tasks at the Barentsburg sampling site.

Another important aspect is the rise in temperatures due to global warming, which in turn facilitates the establishment and growth of native as well as non-native plants, possibly affecting their competitive patterns. It is likely that native plants will be overtaken to some degree. These locations of human disturbance and nutrient input have now proven to be potential stepping stones for non-native species to invade native tundra and special bird cliffs.

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