Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Climate scientists are worried a beaver boom may be helping to melt the Arctic ice.
Beavers gnawing away at the Arctic permafrost
by Alfred Wegener Institute
JUNE 30, 2020
Alaska’s beavers are profiting from climate change, and spreading rapidly. In just a few years’ time, they have not only expanded into many tundra regions where they’d never been seen before; they’re also building more and more dams in their new homes, creating a host of new water bodies. This could accelerate the thawing of the permafrost soils, and therefore intensify climate change, as an International American-German research team reports in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
This has already affected the water balance. Apparently, the rodents intentionally do their work in those parts of the landscape that they can most easily flood. To do so, sometimes they dam up small streams, and sometimes the outlets of existing lakes, which expand as a result. “But they especially prefer drained lake basins,” Benjamin Jones, lead author of the study, and Nitze report. In many cases, the bottoms of these former lakes are prime locations for beaver activity. “The animals have intuitively found that damming the outlet drainage channels at the sites of former lakes is an efficient way to create habitat. 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 waterbody,” added Jones. These actions have their consequences: in the course of the 17-year timeframe studied, the overall water area in the Kotzebue region grew by 8.3 percent. And roughly two-thirds of that growth was due to the beavers.
…Read more: https://phys.org/news/2020-06-beavers-gnawing-arctic-permafrost.html
The abstract of the study;
Increase in beaver dams controls surface water and thermokarst dynamics in an Arctic tundra region, Baldwin Peninsula, northwestern Alaska
Published 30 June 2020 • © 2020 The Author(s). Published by IOP Publishing Ltd
Beavers are starting to colonize low arctic tundra regions in Alaska and Canada, which has implications for surface water changes and ice-rich permafrost degradation. In this study, we assessed the spatial and temporal dynamics of beaver dam building in relation to surface water dynamics and thermokarst landforms using sub-meter resolution satellite imagery acquired between 2002 and 2019 for two tundra areas in northwestern Alaska. In a 100 km2 study area near Kotzebue, the number of dams increased markedly from 2 to 98 between 2002 and 2019. In a 430 km2 study area encompassing the entire northern Baldwin Peninsula, the number of dams increased from 94 to 409 between 2010 and 2019, indicating a regional trend. Correlating data on beaver dam numbers with surface water area mapped for 12 individual years between 2002 and 2019 for the Kotzebue study area showed a significant positive correlation (R2 = 0.61; p < .003). Beaver-influenced waterbodies accounted for two-thirds of the 8.3% increase in total surface water area in the Kotzebue study area during the 17 year period. Beavers specifically targeted thermokarst landforms in their dam building activities. Flooding of drained thermokarst lake basins accounted for 68% of beaver-influenced surface water increases, damming of lake outlets accounted for 26%, and damming of beaded streams accounted for 6%. Surface water increases resulting from beaver dam building likely exacerbated permafrost degradation in the region, but dam failure also factored into the drainage of several thermokarst lakes in the northern Baldwin Peninsula study region, which could promote local permafrost aggradation in freshly exposed lake sediments. Our findings highlight that beaver-driven ecosystem engineering must be carefully considered when accounting for changes occurring in some permafrost regions, and in particular, regional surface water dynamics in low Arctic and Boreal landscapes.Read more: https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab80f1
Let us hope scientists find a way to mitigate the damage done by the exploding beaver population before it is too late.