A Very Arctic Christmas Card: Life During the Polar Night

It’s that time of year again. The mildly chilly and hopefully moist California weather is ushering in a season of many pleasures: hot chocolate, sweater weather, the opportunity to curl up at home and binge-watch a Netflix show of one’s choice. Winter break is on the horizon, gifts beckon from underneath politically correct evergreen trees and life is good.

At least, for humans. Since it’s the season to be grateful, it’s also a good a time as any to think about what winter doesn’t mean here. And what it doesn’t mean is six months of total darkness accompanied by temperatures that are an average of -40 degrees Farenheit.

This refers, of course, to Santa’s eternal abode: the North Pole, in the middle of the Arctic Circle.

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A polar night in Longyearbyen, Norway. During polar nights in the Arctic, the sun may not rise above the horizon for six months at a time. (Photo: “Polar-Night Longyearbyen” by B. C. Tørrissen, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)

Now, the North Pole isn’t populated by Mr. and Mrs. Claus and their band of merry elves. (If I’ve disillusioned you, I offer my humblest apologies.) However, there are animals that do live in the Arctic, and in fact thrive there and nowhere else. Any animal living in such an extreme environment is bound to have a few interesting Christmas tales to tell. Let’s take a look at a few of them, to remind ourselves why we should be grateful to be living in balmy California.

Fox Gardens

White, furry and very furry. All these apply to the Arctic fox, the Vulpes lagopus. As their name implies, they live in the Arctic circle – in Alaska, Canada, Europe and Greenland. While to us they may seem adorable, these little carnivores are the terror of lemmings and other tidbits, their main source of food.

For us, winter holidays are a time to get together with family for a few days or weeks. For foxes, the whole of winter is family time. To escape the far-below-freezing temperatures, they take shelter in underground dens, dug into the permafrost, or permanently frozen ground. To keep themselves warm, they avoid drinking water or eating ice, staying hydrated from their food and make use of their extraordinarily insulating fur coats. To feed themselves and their pups, they might travel as much as six hundred miles a day, hunting rodents or scavenging already-dead animals.

All this food makes its way back to their dens and inevitably, some doesn’t get eaten. Add to that the waste you get when you put as many as 16 pups in one den, and you can guess how messy the household gets after a whole winter of this.

Why does it matter? Well, come springtime, things start to thaw out as the six months of dark are replaced by six months of light. It’s prime time for the tundra’s plants when the snow melts. And fox dens in the summer, having been thoroughly fertilized by the productive foxes, are a prime site for plants. It turns out that Arctic fox dens are veritable gardens for tundra plants. The soil around them is high in nitrogen and phosphorous, allowing the dens to support up to three times as much plant mass as the land around them. They increase biodiversity too— American dune grass (Leymus mollis) and plainleaf willow (Salix planifolia) both get a chance to thrive in areas normally populated mostly by mountain avens (Dryas integrifolia).

Reindeer Ruckus

Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer also has to survive the winter, when Santa’s not feeding him extra cookies and milk. Turns out that his red nose helps him do that. Scientists working at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and the University of Rochester in New York discovered this unique adaptation four years ago. They found that reindeer—referring to domesticated caribou in the United States, and to both wild and domesticated caribou everywhere else—have a superabundance of capillaries, which carry red blood cells to tissue, in their nose. These capillaries warm the air as they breathe it in, keeping it from freezing their lungs.

Apart from that, reindeer cheat a little bit. They migrate south for the winter, to the sheltering forests of the southern tundra. Not that they have it easy. Unlike us, wild reindeer don’t have any trouble keeping weight off during the winter – all they can eat is fungi and lichen, which they find by clearing snow from the ground with their antlers. There’s also a very good chance that they’ll spend part of their Christmas running away from hungry wolves, their erstwhile predators and foes.

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A strolling reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) in the Kebnekaise valley, Lappland, Sweden. Reindeer migrate south to escape the extremes of Arctic winter in the open tundra. (Photo: “Strolling reindeer” by A. Buisse, licensed under GNU Free Documentation License)

In other parts of the world, reindeer are raised by traditional nomadic people, such as the Siberian Nenets. Their lives are closely tied to those of their reindeer, which they herd north during the Arctic summer and south during the winter to escape the bitterest cold. Under their care, reindeer herds in that part of the world have been steadily growing since the 1920s.

This winter, that may change. Humans are just as much a threat to reindeer as wolves are, making for a not very fun holiday season for reindeer. Up to 250,000 reindeer may be culled under the auspices of the Russian government. It’s not without cause, though, and the reason is more unexpected than you might think: zombie bacteria.

Reindeer have lived and died in the region for a very long time. Some of those carcasses became trapped in the permafrost – that is, what was permafrost until now. This summer, some of the deepest layers thawed due to rising temperatures. Carcasses and the bacteria in them made their way to the surface, causing three outbreaks of anthrax. It infected reindeer, leading to 2,300 being euthanized. More worryingly, it infected 100 people, one of whom died.

In order to prevent a recurrence of this summer’s events, Russian officials have suggested killing off some of the herds. This would be damaging to the Nenet’s way of life, as well as the reindeer themselves. Scientists, too, have questioned the efficacy of this method.

Furthermore, this may not be a one-time event, due to a little something called a positive feedback loop. Biology teacher Lora Lerner summarized the concept. Among other things, both methane and carbon dioxide are frozen into the Arctic permafrost. In frozen form they’re harmless and inert.

However, as the permafrost thaws and the greenhouse gases escape into the atmosphere, “it increases the rate of global warming, which increases the rate of the thawing of the permafrost.” Which, in turn, increases the release of the gases, increasing global warming, which… you get the idea.

All this to say that some reindeer may not be having a very pleasant winter holiday this year.

Neverending Summer for Arctic Birds

On a more positive note, consider Arctic birds. Arctic terns (Sterna paradisaea), sooty shearwaters (Puffinus griseus) and a few others really do cheat. How? Easy: they don’t stick around for winter. Dr. Scott Shaffer, an associate professor of the biological sciences at San Jose State University, researched sooty shearwaters and offered an explanation over the phone.

As he put it, they experience a “perpetual summer”. These graceful brown birds pack quite a mileage in a relatively small body. In sub-Antarctic New Zealand, during the austral summer, they rear chicks. When it starts to get chilly around March, they fly north to the Bering Sea and North Pacific – just in time to feast on squid, krill, and fish in the northern hemisphere’s summer. September and October? It’s back to sunny New Zealand, as the Arctic plunges back into its six months of darkness. In this way, the shearwaters skip winter entirely. For them, it’s always spring, autumn, or summer.

“I feel very fortunate to be able to go and study bird species like that,” he said. Indeed – any species that is able to accomplish such a feat is worthy of admiration.

Shaffer added that at the time of his research, it was believed that sooty shearwaters had the longest migration out of all animals.

Later, though, that title was stolen by the Arctic tern, due to new research. With their black cap, bright orange beaks and feet, and aerodynamic pearly gray feathers, they are capable of traveling astoundingly long distances. One tern was recorded to have covered 59,650 miles – enough to circle the earth more than two times.

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An Arctic tern in flight. Arctic terns have logged the longest migrations of any animal so far. (Photo: “Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea) attacking” by Andreas Weith, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International)

 

Like reindeer, various Arctic birds are facing threats at the hands of humans. Dr. Shaffer has also worked on black-legged kittiwakes, which in the Arctic at 78 degrees N. The analysis of the results from the research is still ongoing, but there’s a fair chance that contaminants may have affected the hormones of the birds, and changed their patterns of egg-turning – the regular rotation of eggs during incubation that helps ensure a successful hatching.

Lerner also weighed in on the presence of contaminants in the Arctic. Materials like mercury “can get in the atmosphere and then come down all over the planet,” working their way up through the food chain to the detriment of animals. And the higher in the food chain the contaminants go, the more concentrated they are, especially in top predators like some cold-water fish.

Tracking the way that Arctic terns, sooty shearwaters, and other birds move and migrate is ultimately helpful to them. By understanding more about how they spend their Christmas, scientists are able to better understand how climate change, pollution, and other factors will affect them. Then again, maybe it’s okay to be a little envious of a bird that gets to have summer all year long.

Dark Future for the Arctic?

This winter in the Arctic will be different from previous ones. There can be no discussion of the Arctic without another discussion about global warming there. Dr. Shaffer stated that even when he was working at a Norwegian station on Svalbard, his colleague told him that the glaciers were retreating at a “pretty alarming rate”. This year, it’s all the more relevant.

The Arctic is more vulnerable than the Antarctic or any other part of the globe to warming, due to the particulars of the global climate and the differences in geography – while the Antarctic has a landmass underneath, raising its altitude at the south pole, the Arctic is just ice. When that ice starts to melt, the Arctic shrinks. Scientists and most of the public have been aware of this for quite some time now. What’s different this Nov.?

Answer: the Arctic is a full 36 degrees Farenheit warmer right now than it usually is. To put that in context, it’s like if right now in Cupertino, instead of 60 degrees Fahrenheit, it was 96 degrees. That’s right. That’s how drastic the difference is.

And here’s the other thing: the polar night has already started. The sun hasn’t risen above the horizon over much of the Arctic for some time now. Before, this would have meant that the Arctic was cooling down and its sea ice was recovering. Today? Instead of getting cooler, it’s getting warmer.

Two factors have contributed to this anomaly. The ocean waters around the Arctic are in places more than 25 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they normally are, undermining the ice. The second factor is that an unusually warm and wet jet stream is pouring into it from the south. Both of these factors have a common root: anthropogenic global warming.

The change in the jet stream is likely to last quite a while. It seems, given the current political climate (looking at you, President-elect), that climate change will, too.

What this means for all of the animals in the Arctic is still unclear. Some have already started to succumb to the pressure; landlocked animals, like polar bears and reindeer, have less ability to escape unfavorable conditions. Others might fare better. It’s certainly a boon to animals from the south that can move into a warming Arctic, leaving their own, now-unsuitable habitat.

“[B]y and large, there’s still a fair amount of space that’s wilderness, and that’s – that may end up being kind of a refuge for things […] If we can keep it a refuge,” Ms. Lerner said. It remains to be seen how the drama in the Arctic will play out.

Either way, this is a season to be grateful. Comfortable in our own homes, we can at least be grateful for the fact that we don’t have to deal with the consequences of global warming as immediately as the animals in the Arctic do. For now, we can simply appreciate the still-extant biodiversity and admire the fascinating adaptations the animals have evolved in order to cope with that wondrous and threatened habitat. If you’re feeling extra grateful, though, keep in mind that funds to protect wildlife would appreciate a little gift this holiday, apart from just following the mantra of environmentalists – use less electricity, less oil, less waste.

And be glad that it’s not going to be nighttime for the next 4 months.