For animals that live on Arctic ice, like polar bears and walruses, rising sea temperatures usually mean a disappearing home.
But John Pearce, a biologist for the US Geological Survey in Anchorage, says that’s not always the case.
“We really don’t know how all the different species of wildlife are gonna respond to changes in the Arctic as a result of warming climates and diminishing sea ice, but folks often say there’s likely going to be winners and losers,” Pearce said.
The winners in this round: black brant geese. They spend their winters on the Pacific Coast and in the Aleutian Islands, and summer in the high Arctic.
On the North Slope, the brant frequents inland waters like Teshekpuk Lake, which feeds a wetlands system in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
A year ago, the Bureau of Land Management put together its first-ever unified plan for managing both wildlife and resources in the petroleum reserve. They drew a line around the Teshekpuk area and closed most of it to oil and gas development.
Some of it is technically open, but the BLM wouldn’t lease it without extra consideration for the waterfowl and caribou that live there.
In the meantime, the US Geological Survey is watching to see how animals are using the wetlands. And John Pearce, their biologist, says he’s noticed changes.
Black brant are now flocking to a part of the Teshekpuk area where there didn’t use to be food for them. That’s changing as sea ice melts off and saltwater creeps further inland.
“And that’s causing more coastal flooding of these low-lying habitats and killing off the plants that are more used to fresh water and creating environments where salt water-loving plants can grow,” Pearce said.
Those environments are new coastal salt marshes, full of plants that the geese like to eat. The plants are growing faster than the black brant can crop them, meaning other species of goose and Arctic shorebird are also moving into the new marshes.
These areas used to be home to caribou. Pearce says there’s more than enough fresh water and grazing habitat for them further inland on the Teshekpuk parcel.
And there’s more than enough new marsh for the birds along the coastline. Pearce says they haven’t filled it all up yet. Right now, many of the geese are staying at Teshekpuk Lake like they always have, or splitting their time between the lake and the coast.
It’s not clear what’ll happen next. Pearce aid that he and other biologists have a lot of questions going forward:
“If the storm surges continue to come inland, are these areas just going to be permanently flooded? Or as the permafrost continues to thaw underneath these habitats, are they going to sort of sink out of reach of the brant? And is there sort of a march of this habitat inland, or do we reach a point at which it can’t extend any further inland?”
All those dynamics — short and long-term — are important to the Bureau of Land Management. They need data about where wildlife are, and where they’re going, to make decisions about where’s safe to drill and build.
Stacy MacIntosh is the acting manager of the BLM’s Arctic field office, based in Fairbanks. She says they can’t draw any major conclusions from the new information just yet.
But MacIntosh said she is taking it as a good sign that melting sea ice off the North Slope is creating habitat for a change.
“There was an unsurety as to what climate change may be doing to this area, whether or not it was going to respond positively or negatively,” MacIntosh said.
One thing is sure — oil and gas leasing around Teshekpuk is never going to be popular with conservation groups, which have so far kept it undeveloped. The closest it’s come was in 2006, when the Bush administration tried to open it for sale and lost the case to the Audubon Society and others in federal appeals court.