Long-Lasting Consequences

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Science  06 Feb 2004:
Vol. 303, Issue 5659, pp. 731
DOI: 10.1126/science.303.5659.731a

The high Arctic of North America includes a vast coastline and numerous islands stretching from Alaska to Greenland. Lakes and ponds in this region provide valuable environmental records in the form of plankton communities preserved in sediment. It has generally been thought that these lakes and other areas of the high Arctic were pristine and unaffected by humans until very recently. Most areas saw only nomadic Inuit whalers until the past century, and only during the summers.

Douglas et al. show, however, that on Somerset Island, and perhaps elsewhere, these nomadic visits significantly and indelibly altered a pond ecosystem as early as 800 years ago. Where the Inuit camped and processed whales, they often dumped carcasses in nearby lakes and ponds, fertilizing the lakes and changing the nitrogen balance and plankton community. These changes have persisted long after the departure of the Inuit, illustrating the persistent effect even temporary human habitation can have on the environment. — BH

Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 101, 1613 (2004).

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