Cold Calling: Could It Be That Global Warming Is Causing Insects to Migrate North? ROM Scientists See for Themselves

By Currie, Doug | ROM Magazine, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Cold Calling: Could It Be That Global Warming Is Causing Insects to Migrate North? ROM Scientists See for Themselves


Currie, Doug, ROM Magazine


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In the far north, the anxiety is palpable. In recent years I've witnessed the worry people feel as they've begun to spot southern-climate insects in their midst. For some First Peoples communities in particular, it's been deeply unsettling to encounter unfamiliar insects, such as yellowjacket wasps and dragonflies, for the first time. But these are anecdotal reports, and we can only speculate what they might mean. There is no scientific research to document that southern insects have become established in the Arctic. It could be that some of them simply hitched a ride north with humans--in shipments of lumber or other materials sent from more southerly climes. But climate change is often seen as the more likely culprit.

It's no secret that climate change and its effects in the far north are among the most serious environmental issues threatening northern Canada. In the Arctic, the increase in annual temperature is almost twice that of the global average. What this will mean for Canada is important to gauge because climate change can have negative effects on Arctic flora and fauna, which in turn have implications for northern residents. So are we seeing climate-induced changes? Or are these introductions of insects accidental, as is common with household pests? In the summer of 2010, this is the question that I, along with colleagues from McGill University and the University of Prince Edward Island, set out to investigate.

The premise of our ongoing study is simple: insects and arachnids are by far the most numerous inhabitants of northern landscapes, and they respond more rapidly to temperature changes than do other organisms. Our approach is to revisit a series of sites that were sampled during the 1947-1962 Northern Insect Survey (NIS)--an unprecedented initiative that sampled diversity at 72 northern sites at a time when climate change was not yet a global concern.

We've selected 12 of the original NIS sites for re-sampling over two field seasons: four each in Canada's Arctic, Subarctic, and northern Boreal eco-climatic zones. Our goal is to link data from the original NIS with that from our own field studies in 2010-2011. Comparing the results will allow us to document change and adaptation of northern arthropods over a half-century, and will also provide the basis for calculating how rapidly arthropods migrate north in response to a warming climate in the future. Such data will be of value to ecologists and wildlife biologists, who are trying to create a model of the effects of climate change on northern organisms.

To find out whether change has really occurred, rather than simply extrapolating from anecdotal reports, we are working to produce rigorously collected data that will give us clear answers. Some insects are of great concern: biting flies can harass both resident and migratory birds and mammals. But, more ominously, many southern species of biting flies carry parasitic diseases that can weaken or even kill their hosts. A better understanding of northern migration will be one piece of the puzzle that ecologists and wildlife biologists will use to assess the risks to Arctic organisms, which may eventually inform conservation planning.

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During the 2010 season, we dispatched field crews to six of * the twelve sites chosen for study--all in northeastern Canada. Two teams of four researchers worked in parallel, sampling the northern Boreal sites first, and working their way north to the Subarctic and then the Arctic sites. In this way, we were able to collect insects at about the same period of development after snowmelt in each zone.

I had the privilege of leading a team of four entomologists to Churchill, Manitoba--the "Polar Bear Capital of the World." Churchill is a mecca for biologists because it is one of the few northern communities blessed with a world-class research facility. …

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