Biodiversity Research Institute
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Arctic Program
Arctic Program


Spatio-temporal trends in mercury exposure to New York songbirds: Correlations with climate, habitat, and projecting future change (2020)

Bald eagle mercury exposure varies with region and site elevation in New York, USA. (2020)

Mercury Exposure in Songbird Communities within Sphagnum Bog and Upland Forest Ecosystems in the Adirondack Park (New York, USA) (2020)

The Arctic

The Arctic region extends from the Arctic Ocean (surrounding the North Pole) to the tundra and northern boreal forest of North America and Eurasia. It is home to ecosystems and peoples uniquely adapted to extreme conditions, and is a harsh and challenging environment at the best of times. Due to the direct and diverse effects of climate change, the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the globe and changes are already underway. The rise in sea level, loss of multiyear sea ice, and rapid warming trend seen in recent decades are changing the face of the Arctic faster than predicted. As a result, species that live there year-round, or are reliant on the Arctic for much of their life cycle, are at serious risk.

Program Director: Iain Stenhouse

Ecosystem Health in the Arctic

The health of the Arctic is impacted by a range of anthropogenic stressors from overharvesting to environmental contaminants and the degradation of habitats. In the face of climate change, the conservation of Arctic ecosystems is one of the greatest ecological and political challenges of our time. BRI and the Arctic Program contribute to this effort through participation in collaborative research and conservation initiatives designed to identify new and emerging stressors and to inform stakeholders and policymakers about our science.
BRI’s Arctic Program is involved in a range of research and conservation initiatives. These are generally interdisciplinary in nature and include collaborators from national agencies within Arctic countries, as well as local and international conservation organizations. Staff from BRI’s Center for Waterbird Studies, Center for Mercury Studies, and Marine Bird Program contribute to these broad efforts in the Arctic.
Contaminant Studies

Contaminant Studies

Even without large-scale development in the region, Arctic species are increasingly exposed to environmental contaminants, such as mercury, due to long-range atmospheric transportation, which tends to deposit more in the Arctic than elsewhere.

Climate change can further exacerbate the risks of mercury contamination to Arctic wildlife. As temperatures rise, mercury previously sequestered in permafrost is released, and the rate of mercury methylation is increased, making it more bioavailable for uptake by Arctic species.
Since its inception, BRI has studied the exposure and effects of mercury in many species of fish and wildlife around the world.

BRI contaminant projects in the Arctic include:

  • Investigating mercury levels in the feathers and blood of a broad suite of shorebirds breeding across North America, from Alaska to Nunavut (in collaboration with the Arctic Shorebird Demographics Network)
  • Evaluating mercury exposure in a number of seabirds and waterbirds breeding in Alaska and Russia, including the Kittlitz’s Murrelet, Yellow-billed Loon, Pacific Loon, and Arctic Loon (in collaboration with researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey, and at the Russian Academy of Sciences)
Tracking Movements

Tracking Movements

Many species that rely on the Arctic for a critical part of their life cycle migrate to other regions of the globe. In doing so, these species are often exposed to a series of threats along their migratory routes and on their wintering grounds. Conserving these species requires a detailed understanding of their annual movements.

With the advent of new and miniaturized technologies, we have the ability to track even small birds across the face of the globe, from their Arctic breeding grounds to distant wintering areas. The Arctic Tern, for example, migrates from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again over the course of an annual cycle.
BRI tracking projects in the Arctic include:

  • Determining the year-round movements of migratory birds that nest in Denali National Park, Alaska, and identifying migration routes, stopover sites, and wintering areas (in collaboration with the National Park Service)
  • Identifying the Asian wintering areas of Yellow-billed Loons breeding on Alaska’s North Slope (in collaboration with Dr. Joel Schmutz, U.S. Geological Survey)
  • Identifying the Arctic breeding areas of Red-throated Loons wintering in the mid-Atlantic coastal region (in collaboration with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
  • Assessing the year-round association between Arctic-breeding Black Guillemots and sea ice (in collaboration with Dr. George Divoky, Friends of Cooper Island)
Surveys and Population Monitoring

Surveys and Population Monitoring

Many bird species are considered good indicators of overall ecosystem health. Evaluating the conservation status of bird populations can be difficult, but gathering reliable data on the trends in the abundance and distribution of birds breeding in remote Arctic regions is enormously challenging. BRI’s Arctic monitoring studies include:

  • Capturing and color-banding Yellow-billed Loons on Alaska’s North Slope to monitor their reproductive success, survival, and breeding distribution (in collaboration with Dr. Joel Schmutz, U.S. Geological Survey)
  • Collaborating with Russian scientists in the Chukotka region of Siberia to develop on-site field methods for monitoring loons (Yellow-billed, Pacific, and Arctic), and on publications related to the ecology of waterbirds, shorebirds, songbirds, and other Arctic wildlife (with Dr. Diana Solovyeva, Russian Academy of Sciences)
Photo Credits: Header Image © Carsten Egevang/ARC-PIC.COM; American Golden Plover © Ken Archer; Red-throated Loon © BRI-Jonathan Fiely; Arctic Warbler © Ken Archer
Biodiversity Research Institute