WWU's Eric DeChaine to Continue His Climate-Change Research in Greenland This Summer

Western Washington University associate professor of Biology Eric DeChaine will continue his National Science Foundation-funded research this summer on global climate change and how it affects biodiversity as he gathers data in such remote locations as Greenland and the MacKenzie Mountains in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

The specific goal of DeChaine’s research is to better understand how plants have reacted to historic climate change so scientists can better predict species’ reaction to the current worldwide changes in climate. To collect the data for his research, he seeks out certain types of rare alpine plants to compare their DNA with previous specimens, and to note how their territories have expanded or contracted as the global climate shifted in the past. Then he uses the geographic locations of plants to estimate where habitat might be available for them in the future.

“Global climate change occurs even more swiftly in the far north and far south, nearer the poles,” DeChaine said. “So visiting these places – many of which have never been sampled before – is hugely important in terms of both establishing a baseline for species distribution and to better understand how these species react, adapt, or disappear in the face of rising temperatures.”

Plants are excellent litmus tests for the changing climate because they can’t hide or quickly migrate – they may not be easy to find, especially when you have to climb 7,000 feet to find them – but in the big picture they are either where they are supposed to be or they are not.

Research by Sam Wershow, a graduate student in DeChaine’s lab, predicts that suitable habitat for up to 60 percent of the endemic alpine plant species of the Olympics could disappear in the next 60 years.

“Why does this matter? Because these plants are an incredibly important part of the ecosystem. Eventually, you just pull the wrong string, and the whole system unravels,” he said. "It’s been estimated that for each endemic plant lost, 10-30 endemic animals go extinct."

DeChaine’s first sampling site this summer will be on the cliffs of Vancouver Island’s Mount Doom on the Brooks Peninsula; from there he will move on to Greenland, where he will gather samples along the island’s southeast coast and work his way northwest.

“Greenland is fascinating biogeographically because its East Coast has plants from Europe and Scandinavia, while its West Coast has North American species. And few places on earth are experiencing as rapid and profound a change in climate as Greenland,” he said.

DeChaine will finish his summer in a remote section of Canada’s Mackenzie Mountains known as the Cirque of the Unclimbables, where he will share the towering peaks with mountain goats, Dall’s sheep, and migrating caribou.

“I hope they’re not unclimbable because I’ve got to get up there,” he said.

DeChaine research is funded by a three-year $270,000 National Science Foundation grant. His previous destinations for sampling include the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, Russia’s Altai and Lake Baikal regions in Siberia, Alberta, Baffin Island, the Yukon, and Japan. For more information on this trip or his research, contact DeChaine at (360) 650-6575 or eric.dechaine@wwu.edu.