The FRAGILE program, which stands for "FRagility of Arctic Goose habitat: Impacts of Land use, conservation and Elevated temperatures", is a project to investigate the relationship between changes in the breeding patterns of Arctic geese, the health of the Arctic tundra regions of Northwestern Europe, and global warming. It is a collaborative project among many European institutions, including the Unit for Polar Ecology at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW), as well as various environmental institutes and university research centers. The research conducted by the FRAGILE program seems to indicate that changes in land use patterns as well as measures to protect Arctic geese are currently having significant negative implications for global climate change.

Preliminary research into the tundra of Northwestern Europe indicated that existing methods used in the management of this important resource may actually have been making it more vulnerable to environmental damage. This is particularly disturbing because the Arctic tundra region is a particularly important global "carbon sink." Carbon sinks are environments in which more carbon dioxide is absorbed from the atmosphere than given off, making these environments important resources in the fight against global climate change. FRAGILE was therefore established to determine whether existing patterns of environmental management were actually turning European tundra regions into "carbon sources." The possible conversion of Arctic tundra regions into "carbon sources," which give off more carbon dioxide than they absorb, is particularly disturbing given that this change might greatly accelerate climate change worldwide. In fact, 12% of the world's total soil carbon sources, or "stocks," are found in tundra regions.

Evidence from regions of Arctic tundra elsewhere in the world indicates that these areas are particularly vulnerable to changes in Arctic goose breeding patterns. In particular, overgrazing by Arctic geese can severely impact the ability of these areas to serve as "carbon sinks." As evidence indicates that the number of geese in Arctic Europe has increased steadily over the last 40 years, FRAGILE took it upon itself to study whether overgrazing was in fact happening in this area. The eventual aim of FRAGILE is to make appropriate management recommendations to European environmental authorities in order to protect goose habitat in the tundra, as well as the continued ability to use the area for agricultural purposes and its ability to serve as a carbon sink.

FRAGILE focuses its research specifically on the Svalbard region of Norway, and on the pink-footed geese (Anser brachyrhynchus) and barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis) which breed in the region. Approximately 50 years ago, the barnacle goose breeding population on Svalbard was estimated at 300 geese, but is now estimated to be over 20,000. Likewise, the pink-footed goose population is estimated to have tripled during the same time period. This increase in goose population appears to have been driven primarily by agricultural practices that have made the tundra more fertile, as well as the establishment of European nature preserves, the latter of which has reduced the hunting of these geese significantly. Together with existing climate change, these factors have combined to expand the breeding areas of these geese in the European tundra, causing a population explosion.

In addition to using existing data to model levels of impact on the tundra and global climate change of various increases in the goose population, FRAGILE also works by conducting experimental studies on Svalbard. Specifically, they fence off various sections of the tundra on Svalbard, and observe the breeding and grazing behaviors of tame geese released into these areas of the tundra environment. The data collected in these small-scale, controlled environments can be extrapolated to tell a "big picture" story.

FRAGILE's findings, based on its data modeling and experimentation, indicate that the increase in the Arctic goose population in Europe is rapidly accelerating the transformation of European tundra from carbon sink to source via the mechanism of overgrazing. The reduction of biomass in the region caused by overgrazing ultimately acts as a cause of desertification, and therefore the release of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Ultimately, the results of the FRAGILE project shows that European environmental policymakers must work together to implement policies that will reverse these negative environmental changes to the tundra, in the interest of reducing the effects of climate change throughout Europe and worldwide.

Links about FRAGILE