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Earth's polar regions cannot be protected without first mapping biodiversity 

Scientists from the University of East Anglia (UEA) are calling for a project to map the biodiversity of Earth’s polar regions. The study would map all biodiversity in these regions – from the atmosphere to the deep sea.

Polar ecosystems, deemed the most sensitive to global warming, are disappearing rapidly, taking with them a vast array of biological life essential for ecosystem services and climate regulation.

Polar biodiversity projections

Professor Thomas Mock, who co-authored the report with Professor Melody Clark from the British Antarctic Survey, emphasized what is needed for the accurate mapping of biodiversity in polar regions.

“Biodiversity projections for the polar regions can only be reliably constructed if we have a sufficiently profound understanding of the diversity, ecological functions, and interrelations of polar organisms, as well as their resilience to climate change,” said Professor Mock. 

“These remote regions play substantial, often underappreciated, roles in the carbon cycle and drive global nutrient and dissolved organic matter fluxes. Consequently, polar environmental and ecological processes are intimately connected with our everyday life and our planet’s health, much of which is underpinned by the endemic biota, from viruses to large animals.” 

“There is strong evidence that climate-induced changes in the polar regions are already altering species distributions on land and in the sea, with major impacts on ecosystem function.” 

Species are shifting towards the poles, affecting food chains and the life dependent on the polar climates, including microbes, seals, whales, and polar bears.

Warming in polar regions

The Arctic is warming at least four times faster than other regions of the world. As temperature changes alter the Arctic jet stream, this can lead to extreme weather events like heat waves, droughts, and flooding in temperate zones. 

Meanwhile, melting permafrost and collapsing Arctic coastlines are releasing ancient carbon stores, nutrients, and potentially dormant viruses and pathogenic bacteria – significantly altering ecological interactions and biogeochemistry.

The Southern Ocean and Antarctic continent face similar challenges. The Southern Ocean, responsible for absorbing a large portion of anthropogenic heat and CO2, is crucial in carbon sequestration, serving as a natural buffer against climate change.

Sequencing technologies

The study highlights the importance of sequencing technologies in understanding how organisms function in these extreme environments. 

“Sequencing technologies have massively changed our abilities to decipher how organisms work. However, the uptake in polar biology has been relatively low, especially when considering the tens of thousands of species that reside at the poles and are at threat in our warming world,” said Professor Clark. 

“Understanding how lots of very strange organisms living in extreme cold can help answer globally questions and provide real benefits for society. Failure to act now will result in a substantial loss of knowledge regarding evolutionary adaptation to the cold.” 

Genomic screening is not just crucial for identifying stressed populations, but also for monitoring invasive species, thus enabling timely interventions.

Research implications 

“With the cold regions of our planet diminishing, there is a real imperative to obtain full genome sequences for diverse organisms inhabiting polar ecosystems, from the deep oceans to the permafrost on land, for both the Arctic and Antarctic,” said Professor Mock.

“This will enable the wider application of omics technologies to polar species, which will revolutionize our understanding of evolution in the cold and adaptive responses to a warming world.” 

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

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