Ecosystem Science

Lichens in High Arctic ecosystems: Recommended research directions for assessing diversity and function near the Canadian High Arctic Research Station, Cambridge Bay, Nunavut

I.D. Hogg, L.G. Sancho, R. Türk, D.A Cowan, and T.G.A. Green

Lichens grow on rocks, stones, or soil. They are often the dominant vegetation in the vicinity of Ikaluktutiak (Cambridge Bay). Unfortunately, not much is known about their diversity and the way they may respond to climate change. Researchers need better knowledge about how lichens grow and respond to their environment. This will help them predict how climate change may affect lichens. The Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) organized a visit to Cambridge Bay by lichen scientists with polar and alpine habitat experience. They found lichens in three main areas:

1) wet areas with lichens growing among other plants

2) drier areas where lichens cover rocks and stones

3) soil “crusts” where lichens grow on soil surfaces

The lichen scientists recommended a list of lichen research priorities. These include creating an inventory of the lichen species that are present now. This will provide a baseline to monitor any future changes. Ways to allow non-specialists to recognize and identify lichen species should also be developed. A lichen herbarium with named specimens housed at CHARS should be set up. There should also be a lichen DNA reference library. Together, the herbarium and DNA library will make identifying the different lichen species easier.

By knowing how fast lichens grow, they can be used to identify the age of exposed surfaces and the age of rocks at archaeological sites. The speed that lichen re-grows after surface damage can also be found. Since lichens are only active when wet, special monitoring systems could show activity patterns each year.

Winter snow cover is important for lichens. Historical information from the local community would help provide information on sites that have higher moisture. This information can be combined with studies on how lichens photosynthesize to find the limits of lichen growth. This will allow scientists to predict the possible effects of climate change on lichens. The CHARS facility provides an excellent opportunity to carry out this work.

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