The temperatures are warming and the ice is melting—as is the funding for scientific stations that monitor the long-term health of arctic ecosystems.
Measuring melting glaciers and ice caused by global climate change is easy—NASA and NOAA have satellites for that. But measuring the changing climate's impact on local ecosystems is much harder, requiring manned monitoring sites around the world, a much more expensive proposition. With Washington trying to reign in the national budget, the 26 Long Term Ecological Research (or LTER) sites set up around the United States and Antarctica are becoming an increasingly endangered species.
Going forward, "we're funded on a bare-bones basis," says Andrew Fountain, a professor at Portland State University and author of a report released Friday on the importance of sites that measure the ecological impact of ice melts. "We do have funding, but it's always quite limited. I don't think we need another space program to solve this, but having consistent, reliable funding is important for these long-term studies."
The LTER program was created in 1980 by the National Science Foundation—its research is ongoing, but some studies can take decades, especially in polar regions where year-round monitoring can be difficult.
"It has required decades of coordinated observations to document significant change and to uncover the mechanisms linking climate forcing to ecosystem responses," according to Fountain's paper. "The simple logistics of polar regions make them more expensive."
While the National Science Foundation's budget has remained relatively flat, and even increased by 2.5 percent from 2011 to 2012, some lawmakers have proposed deep cuts to the agency. The journal BioScience had a special section where scientists in LTER outlined some of the discoveries made by these sites, in hopes their importance would be recognized.
Among those findings: Populations of certain penguin species in Antarctica have declined by 80 percent since 1975, wolverines can't breed unless they have sufficient snow to make caves in, and the American pika, a mouse-like creature that lives in the Rocky Mountains, has had its habitat nearly destroyed.
Measuring the environmental impact on disappearing mammal populations isn't too tough, but scientists have reason to believe microbial and krill populations in the polar regions have declined. That creates "cascading upward effects," Fountain says. That may have caused a decline in the penguin population, which can affect larger sea mammals.
"We don't understand really how everything works together—we can't say 'here are the changes, here are the parts of the systems that will change,'" Fountain says. "That's why these long-term ecological sites are important, to maintain monitoring. We need more data."
Charles Driscoll, a Syracuse University professor who studied their importance, said in a statement that LTER sites create "a crucial bridge between the scientific community and society."
"LTER datasets and experiments help inform local- to national-scale decisions regarding climate change, pollution, fire, land conversion, and other pressing environmental challenges," he said.