Tracking the effects of climate change on Arctic animals is no easy task


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This week:

  • Tracking the effects of climate change on Arctic animals is no easy task
  • The Paris Accord, 5 years later
  • Why so many tampon applicators end up on beaches

Tracking the effects of climate change on Arctic animals is no easy task

(David Grémillet)

The climate in the Arctic is rapidly changing and new research offers the first large-scale look at how animal species in the region are adapting.

Built by a team of international researchers, the Arctic Animal Movement Archive pulls together more than 200 animal tracking studies by universities, governments and conservationists from the last 30 years. And a large amount of data came from here in Canada.

“We worked for three years to … bring a lot of people together to create the archive,” said Gil Bohrer, a civil and environmental engineer at Ohio State University and one of the lead authors of the study, which was recently published in the journal Science.

The archive features tracking information collected from GPS devices worn by 86 species that live across the Arctic and subarctic regions from Canada to Greenland to Russia — everything from puffins to wolves to seals. 

Data like that is difficult to obtain, given the costs of getting to the Arctic and the process of tagging animals for long periods. “You need to buy a sensor, which is typically not cheap, and then you need to catch the animal and install the sensor — and you need to be lucky [in order] for that sensor to keep working,” said Bohrer. 

Allicia Kelly, a wildlife biologist for the government of the Northwest Territories, contributed monitoring data on boreal caribou and barren-ground caribou to the archive, two species that are at risk in Canada. She stressed the challenge of collecting this information, as well as the implications for the animals themselves. 

“It’s really intense to capture and collar animals, especially for the animals, so this data that we collect is hard-won, it’s valuable and we have a responsibility to squeeze as much as we can out of it.”

Researchers processed and standardized animal GPS data from the studies done over the last three decades and uploaded it using a program called Movebank.

Analyzing some of the data, researchers found young golden eagles, for example, shifted their migration patterns and some Northern caribou species are giving birth one week earlier compared to a decade ago. 

“This shift in the timing of when they calve has not occurred in the southern populations of our study. So from this we can see how caribou are perhaps adapting to environmental changes,” said Kelly. 

The archive will continue to grow, with some data automatically being added in real time through satellite networks and GPS trackers, so researchers can follow and monitor changes in this changing environment. It’s also in a standard format, so much easier to access.

“There’s different types of equipment that are used across different studies, and sometimes just the process of getting that data together, getting it cleaned so that you can use it in the same way, is really time-consuming,” said Kelly. 

That’s time that could be spent focusing on finding answers to new questions and exploring how these changes in the Arctic will impact not only animals but also local and Indigenous communities who depend on them.

“Understanding how [animals are] responding to threats from climate change and other pressures is really important to be able to mitigate those changes where we are able, or understand and adapt to them as they happen,” said Kelly.

Tashauna Reid

Reader feedback

In response to Nicole Mortillaro’s piece last week on the adverse environmental effects of light pollution, Helen Dylla wrote, “Like escalators that slow down when no one is using them, there should be a similar system for lights dimming when no one is in the area.”

Ronald Quick wrote, “Does reduced night lighting increase criminal activity? Sounds like many monitored cameras are essential to give police a chance.”

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There’s also a radio show! This week, What on Earth host Laura Lynch explores what the U.S. election results mean for climate action, and whether Joe Biden’s win might influence Canada’s agenda. Listen on CBC Radio One on Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland, on any time on podcast or CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: The Paris climate agreement

Five years ago next month, amid much jubilation and hope, 195 countries came together under the Paris Accord, a collective pledge to keep global warming this century under 2 C (from pre-industrial times) by striving to stay below 1.5 C. Although the agreement was vague on the pathways to this goal, it was a call to arms to reduce carbon emissions. It took effect on Nov. 4, 2016. Four days later, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency and began the process of pulling the world’s second-biggest emitter out of a “totally disastrous” agreement that would “punish the American people while enriching foreign polluters” (his words). The U.S. officially left the Paris Accord on Nov. 4, 2020, the day after the U.S. election. Given Joe Biden’s victory, the departure is likely to be short-lived, as the Democratic president-elect has said he has every intention of returning the country to the agreement. Environmentalists acknowledge the Paris Accord is flawed — it is neither a cure-all for climate change nor is it enforceable. (Indeed, few countries are on target to meet their own goals.) Even so, the mere existence of the agreement has served as a cudgel to compel many companies — from banks to retailers to furniture manufacturers to, yes, fossil-fuel producers — to do what they can to curtail emissions.

(Patrick Kovarick/Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • It’s only been a few days since the results of the U.S. election were announced, but president-elect Joe Biden has already laid out new plans to tackle climate change. Among the $1.7 trillion earmarked for new green investments, the Biden administration plans to fund “negative-emission technologies” — that is, methods of getting greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, including carbon-capture technology and plant-based sequestration.

  • What role will hydrogen have in future energy? A Bloomberg opinion piece suggests it might not live up to the hype for powering cars (battery vehicles are more efficient) but that it’s likely to play a crucial role in how we revamp our energy systems — by being the most effective backup solution for power grids.
  • Last year, socialist Bolivian President Evo Morales fled his country after an election result giving him a fourth term was bitterly contested. There were rumours that Morales had been forced to leave by political forces who wanted a more pro-business government — what many called a “coup.” Morales’s party won re-election recently, and Morales returned from Argentina (although he will have no role in the new government). This week, he claimed again that access to the country’s reserves of lithium (key to making batteries for laptops and electric vehicles) was behind the upheaval. “There’s a lot of concern in the United States over lithium, and this coup was for lithium,” Morales said.

Why so many tampon applicators end up on beaches

(Submitted by Rochelle Byrne)

During her annual cleanups along the shores of Lake Ontario, Rochelle Byrne has come across hundreds of plastic tampon applicators. “When I started finding those on beaches, I was a little bit confused,” she said.

Unlike litter such as coffee cups, plastic bags or cigarette butts, tampon applicators aren’t usually discarded on the shoreline. So Byrne, executive director of the non-profit A Greener Future, did some research to find out why they were ending up there. “It’s because people flush them down the toilet.”

Although they’re not listed as one of the items in the upcoming Canadian ban on single-use plastics, tampon applicators are frequently found in shoreline cleanups and don’t easily degrade.

They’re nowhere nearly as abundant as other shoreline litter — for example, the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup found more than 680,000 cigarette butts and 74,000 food wrappers last year.

Still, between 3,000 and 3,500 tampons and applicators are found on the country’s beaches annually, said Kate Le Souef, manager of the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. She estimates that applicators alone make up 80 per cent of that number.

But why are tampon applicators ending up on our shores in the first place?

Today in Canada, many tampons are sold with an applicator, which helps the user insert the tampon. While tampon applicators are only used for a few seconds, plastic takes a long time to degrade. “Because they’re hard plastic, they float,” Le Souef said. “[They] last a long time in the water.”

These applicators are often found on shorelines along with condoms and needles, items that usually originate in the same place — the toilet. 

These items aren’t supposed to be flushed, but if they are, they should be filtered out at sewage treatment plants. The fact that they’re ending up on beaches is “an indicator that there’s sewage being discharged in the area,” said Mark Mattson, founder of the non-profit Swim Drink Fish, a group that monitors the water in Lake Ontario.

That shouldn’t occur, but Mattson said it does in certain circumstances. In cities with older sewage systems, the same pipes take both sewage and rainwater to the treatment plant. If there’s a big rainstorm, the sewers get too full — and it’s all released into waterways, untreated.

On their websites, tampon companies say not to flush their products. But Byrne said, “I think it comes down to just the convenience of flushing.” For one thing, she said, it’s an easy way to make signs of a tampon disappear. 

The idea of keeping menstruation discreet may be at the root of this plastic problem, said Sharra Vostral, a professor at Purdue University who’s studied the history of menstrual pads. 

“We’re operating under this assumption that we need to hide periods,” she said. Vostral described how pads and tampons are designed to be as discreet as possible to help people “pass” as if they’re not menstruating. Flushing these products has helped hide periods for decades. 

These ways of thinking about menstruation may be at the root of why so many tampon applicators end up in the sewage system. Challenging those attitudes, Vostral said, is the first step toward change.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to say everyone’s going to jump up and embrace their periods,” she said. “But just making it neutral instead of stigmatized is a big shift.” 

— Menaka Raman-Wilms

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