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Sentinel systems on the razor's edge: effects of warming on Arctic geothermal stream ecosystems


Nikolai Friberg, Department of Freshwater Ecology, National Environmental Research Institute, University of Aarhus, Vejlsøvej 25, DK-8600 Silkeborg, Denmark, tel. +45 89 20 14 90, fax +45 89 20 14 14, e-mail:


The Earth is experiencing historically unprecedented rates of warming, with surface temperatures projected to increase by 3–5 °C globally, and up to 7.5 °C in high latitudes, within the next century. Knowledge of how this will affect biological systems is still largely restricted to the lower levels of organization (e.g. species range shifts), rather than at the community, food web or ecosystem level, where responses cannot be predicted from studying single species in isolation. Further, many correlational studies are confounded with time and/or space, whereas experiments have been mostly confined to laboratory microcosms that cannot capture the true complexity of natural ecosystems. We used a ‘natural experiment’ in an attempt to circumvent these shortcomings, by characterizing community structure and trophic interactions in 15 geothermal Icelandic streams ranging in temperature from 5 °C to 45 °C. Even modest temperature increases had dramatic effects across multiple levels of organization, from changes in the mean body size of the top predators, to unimodal responses of species populations, turnover in community composition, and lengthening of food chains. Our results reveal that the rates of warming predicted for the next century have serious implications for the structure and functioning of these fragile ‘sentinel’ ecosystems across multiple levels of organization.

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