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The (Arctic) Circle of Life

by Paul Greenberg

Photo: Paul Greenberg

When you take the humans and their works out of the picture it’s amazing how quickly the inner workings of ecology become visible. As we pushed further above the Arctic circle that ecology unfolded in dramatic fashion. In front of us a cliff studded with bird colonies whose shrieks could be heard above the breaking of the waves. The guano stained rocks offered up a waft of raw organic life. Mostly guillimots guarded their nests but in amongst those mid-sized relatives of the now extinct great auks a pair of puffins guarded their eggs and added their share of guano to the mix.

Puffins. Photo: Cian Ryan

As I know now after spending 3 years researching a book on forage fish and the role they play in marine and terrestrial ecosystems, guano is the stuff of life for nutrient poor places like Svalbard. For within guano are the concentrated nutrients of the sea brought to land. Puffins and other birds harvest fish, digest them and then excrete what is in effect a highly concentrated fertilizer. When that fertilizer settles on land it stirs life seemingly out of the very rocks as in these lichen, which are known as “Ornithokoprophyllic” – literally bird loving.

Ornithokoprophyllic lichen. Photo: Paul Greenberg

But the lichen are just the first, primitive step. Further down below the cliff face, sheets of moss and some actual true plants, a variety of willow actually, sprouted up from the thin soil.

Photo: Paul Greenberg

And feeding upon the bird fertilized moss, reindeer. And from them still more manure which in turn trickled down the hillside where, once it hit the water, fertilized a plankton bloom that turned the water a soupy greenish blue.

Photo: Paul Greenberg

In time the phytoplankton will feed zooplankton, which in turn will feed fish like this sculpin lurking in the depths below the cliff face, which again bring in the feeding seabirds who ingest those fish and make still more guano. An intact cycle of nitrogen, multiplying and diversifying life.

Sculpin. Photo: Alyssa Adler

Some reading this might recall that it is excess nitrogen in the form of agricultural runoff that is causing a massive expansion of dead zones around the planet. When nitrogen inputs are extreme they can cause the blooming of microalgae that in turn cause bacteria to bloom and deoxygenate the water as they consume the algae. Because of this phenomenon there are today more than 400 large dead zones around the world.

By Robert Simmon & Jesse Allen (NASA Earth Observatory) [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

But in each of these cases the dead zones have resulted because of a lack of balance. Ocean waters that suffer from hypoxia are areas where influxes of nitrogen are too great and too sudden to be assimilated and distributed throughout the food web. What the Arctic shows us is that systems relatively untouched by humans treat nitrogen like a nutrient and not as a pollutant. It is a lesson for us to the south that if we manage our nitrogen in a way that resembles natural systems, where we really control how it enters marine ecosystems we might be able to see more and diverse life rather than simplified over nitrified wastelands dominated by algae and bacteria.

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