© Jenny Leonard
Forecasting the future of Arctic conservation
© Hartmut Jungius / WWF

For the Arctic's only rodent, the worst of climate change is likely yet to come. Hamster-like brown lemmings live and breed under Arctic snow but warming temperatures and more rain are making snow less deep and more packed. As snow conditions change, biologists worry that lemming populations will suffer, along with plant communities and Arctic foxes, snowy owls and other predators all of whom rely on the small mammals for food.

More worrying still is the sheer pace of this Arctic transformation. Propelled by warming that’s more than two times as fast as that of the rest of the planet, Arctic climate change is leaving conservationists two steps behind, unsure how to respond, where or even when.

It’s almost a paralysis in many cases where people see the magnitude of the problem and don’t know what to do, explained Martin Sommerkorn, head of conservation with the WWF Arctic Programme.

Dr. Sommerkorn is among the organizers of WWF’s new Arctic Conservation Forecast Initiative that aims to answer this paralyzing Arctic conservation conundrum. The project, which wrapped up its first virtual expert workshop in January, hopes to finally give conservationists a better idea about what to expect when climate change transforms Arctic nature and what they can and must do now to protect it into the future.

To do this, the initiative is exploring new ways to link the predictive powers of climate science to what we know about the biology of Arctic ecosystems and species, including lemmings. By gathering international experts from climate science, oceanography, ecology, conservation and other fields—the “crème-de-la-crème of Arctic scientists,” according to WWF Arctic Programme Director Peter Winsor—the project hopes to bring each of their typically separate perspectives together into a unified conservation vision.

© Jenny Leonard

Climate scientists, for example, are always looking ahead. They may spend little time thinking about Arctic biodiversity, but their computer models show how warming scenarios in the decades ahead may affect weather patterns, including rain and snow. The recent, latest generation of these global climate models is called the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 6 (or CMIP6).

Biologists, on the other hand, know something about how the physical changes foreseen by these models (e.g., ocean warming, thawing permafrost, disappearing ice and snow) can directly—or indirectly—affect how and where Arctic species live or influence Arctic ecosystems.

If we look at land changes and see how they affect, for example, a keystone species like lemmings, changes in snow will impact all of the predators that rely on lemmings, said Donald McLennan, a senior scientist with Polar Knowledge Canada, during the workshop.

Where the different sciences have distinct priorities, the collaborative approach is expected to reveal areas of overlap—or at least a meaningful middle ground—where useful, forward-looking conservation solutions can be found. “My personal interest is in seeing how far we can push it,” said Dr. Winsor, “and in seeing what CMIP6 models can do for us in our conservation work for WWF.”

“I think this project is exciting because we are trying not only to create results, we are also blueprinting how we can respond and in what format we can come together,” said Dr. Sommerkorn. "And that to me is something extremely exciting and that can potentially come to a point where we can actually overcome—and show how to overcome—this paralysis."

© Jenny Leonard
© Ola Jennersten / WWF-Sweden

The workshop process is unique, allowing the Arctic experts to blaze their own collaboration pathway.

January’s online meetings are to be followed by a final virtual workshop set for the end of April. That event will identify and develop examples of these future climate-biology linkages for both land and Arctic waters.

The examples, such as understanding what predicted changes in snow depth mean to lemmings and to the wider tundra ecosystem, will give Arctic conservationists and managers a starting place, allowing them to apply the lessons learned to other species and systems – including the people that depend upon them. A final report on the initiative will serve as a general roadmap to the collaborative approach—a guide to overcoming the many climate-confounded questions affecting Arctic biodiversity and to finally spurring conservation action.