Beware what’s hiding under your boots
Top image: Chris Ware offered free shoe cleaning to tourists at the Longyearbyen airport last summer. Photo: Eva Therese Jenssen/UNIS.
Chris Ware was interested in determining the risk of plant introduction into Svalbard, as a consequence of an increase in the visitation rate to the archipelago. The results show that foreign species indeed can be introduced by something as innocent as our footwear.
12 October 2009
Text and photos: Eva Therese Jenssen
Although the impact of alien plant species in the Antarctica has been frequently investigated, fewer investigations have been made into the threat of alien species settling in the Arctic.
Currently, Chris Ware is working on a joint UNIS and University of Tasmania Master’s degree, where one of the main focuses is on new plant species introduction to the High Arctic, as exemplified by Svalbard.
– Shoes are the primary carrier for foreign seeds, however, seeds can be found in backpacks, camera cases, jackets and other type of equipment you will bring with you, he explains.
Over 1000 individual seeds
Chris and his assistants collected 52 different seed species from 17 plant families during those summer weeks last year. Most of the seeds belonged to the grass family, but also threads from moss species were found.
In total he collected just over 1000 individual seeds, and in addition nearly 500 moss fragments. There were quite a lot of birch seeds in the collection.
The seeds were then germinated under controlled environment conditions of 10 ºC and 24 hours daylight to see if the seeds indeed did survive.
– About 25% of the seeds germinated in the laboratory, however it is not clear whether they will be able to germinate outdoor in the Arctic, he says.
In addition Chris looked at the information the tourists had filled out during the sampling phase. Some of the questions concerned whether they cleaned their shoes and where they had been over the last couple of months. It turned out that the tourists most likely to be carrying seeds had recently been in Alpine or forest environments before arriving in Svalbard.
Basis for future recommendations
His results are consistent with research findings in other parts of the world, most notably in Antarctica. Chris has of course been there too, to collect the dirt under the boots of Antarctic visitors. He did his BA Honors project in Antarctica, where he got soil samples from tourists going ashore.
Chris and his advisors, among them UNIS associate professor Inger Greve Alsos and PhD student Eike Müller, will publish the findings in a scientific publication and will make recommendations to the local authorities in Svalbard about the future management of dealing with the risk of the introduction of new plant species.
So now Chris is off to another part of the world to clean shoes.
– The Arctic component of my Master thesis is completed, and I will now for the next year work on the Antarctic component, Chris says.
He spent last winter in Antarctica (that is during the Southern summer season) studying the plants already present there and how they spread naturally given the hash Antarctic climate.
The Arctic field research is funded in part by the Svalbard Environmental Protection Fund.
22.07.2008: Boot ’em up!