Science

‘Beavers can have a quite significant impact on landscapes’: their dams may intensify climate change, German researchers warn

Picture the concepts of climate change: melting glaciers, rising sea levels, global warming, plastic pollution—you get the picture. But when you think of factors that accelerate the climate crisis, beavers are likely not top-of-mind.

Though the existence of beavers themselves aren’t the issue, their dam-building habits are. In a recent study, scientists found a link between beaver dam-building and consequences surrounding climate change.

When areas increase in shrubs and lakes have thinner ice, it’s a perfect formula for beavers dams. And with these conditions becoming prominent as temperatures rise, many are concerned about the effects on our environment.

How warming temperatures are giving rise to more beaver dams—and the implications

According to the study, in 100-square-kilometers near a town of Kotzebue, Alaska has seen a 5,000% increase in dams. Consequently, there have been damages to the water balance in terms of distribution—especially as many beavers tend to build near places that’ll easily flood.

According to Benjamin Jones, the lead author of the study, beavers build dams mostly within drained lake basins. “The animals have intuitively found that damming the outlet drainage channels at the sites of former lakes is an efficient way to create habitat,” he adds. As a result, this forms a new lake, degrading “ice-rich permafrost in the basin” which increases the water levels.

“The more surface water you have, the worse it is for the permafrost—because in the winter the cold air cannot penetrate again into the ground, and the water stores a lot of the heat and can even penetrate it into the ground,” Nitze, an author in the study, said. The overall water area in Kotzebue grew 8.3% with 2/3 of the reason pinned on beavers.

‘Beavers can have a quite significant impact on these landscapes’

Permafrost is one of the leading sources for storing carbon. And as far as scientists are concerned, PermaFrost has kept 1,460 to 1,600 billion tons of plant matter carbon. So if this ice begins to melt, methane and carbon will release into the atmosphere, perpetuating global warming.

Not only does permafrost store carbon, but it also stores various bacterias and viruses. Jean-Michel Claverie, a genomics researcher who studies bacteria and viruses, states “It is dark, it is cold, and it is also without oxygen … There is no [ultraviolet] light. All the bacteria need is a thaw to wake back up.” If the permafrost begins to melt, we may come into contact with deadly ancient diseases we’ve never even heard before.

As scientists continue to investigate permafrost, people may start to see beavers as a key contributor to climate change. Even though these animals may seem harmless, they are intuitively targeting drained basins, disrupting natural ecosystems, and waking up sleeping monsters that lay under a thick sheet of ice.

“It’s a very new topic and something we have uncovered over the past few years. Beavers can have a quite significant impact on these landscapes, so there’s no real quantification yet for these lakes but it will be done in the future.” Nitze adds.

This post was last modified on July 3, 2020 1:53 am

Jalen Xing

Jalen Xing is a Writer at theRising and the co-founder of Students For Hospitals. You can pitch him stories at jalen.xing [at] gmail [dot] com.

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