CANADA'S CHANGING NORTH
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By Suzanne Forcese
Dramatically altered landscapes and ways of life are being amplified in Canada’s North. Climate change in the Northwest Territories (NWT) has increased temperatures by approximately 3° C in the past 60 years and more so in the winter months. That is an alarming rate of 3 to 4 times higher than the global average.
Researchers from Wilfrid Laurier University are leading a large, multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional team studying the sustainability of water in the Northwest Territories through the Northern Water Futures (NWF) Project funded through Global Water Futures (led by the University of Saskatchewan). The water science collaboration is one of the largest in the world.
In 2010 Laurier University signed a 10-year partnership agreement with the Government of the NWT to support the Territories’ capacity to conduct environmental research and the training of highly qualified personnel in natural resources discipline. The partnership was renewed in 2019 to extend through to 2030.
WaterToday had the pleasure of speaking with Laurier’s Principal Investigator on the Northern Water Futures Project which seeks to understand, predict, and address the impacts of climate change and industrial expansion on water resources across the NWT.
Ecologist Dr. Jennifer Baltzer, Principal Investigator on Northern Water Futures Project
and Canada Research Chair in Forests and Global Change
“Northwestern Canada is one of the most rapidly warming regions on Earth,” Jennifer Baltzer, Laurier Associate Professor, and Canada Research Chair in Forests and Global Change, told WT. “Unprecedented changes in snow cover and rates of permafrost thaw are transforming ecosystems and changing the distribution and routing of water over the landscape. These changes directly affect the health, well-being, safety and livelihoods of northern communities.”
Climate warming-induced changes to precipitation, ice/snow cover, permafrost and ground thermal regimes, wildfire regimes, habitats, river and stream flows, and lake levels are severely challenging in predicting northern water futures.
“These changes call for new, coordinated action driven by user needs and new collaborations that span across disciplines and sectors,” the NWF website states.
In total, 106 researchers from 15 Canadian universities are involved in collaboration with 125 partners (12 international institutions; 44 government agencies, 36 industry partners; 25 non-governmental organizations; 8 Indigenous communities/governments).
Dr. Baltzer, whose research focuses on forest ecosystems including the boreal forests in the low arctic tundra said, “Changes in permafrost have big implications for how water moves and the quality and quantity of that water as it reaches streams, rivers and larger bodies of water.”
Extreme fires are both caused by and contribute to climate change.
“The wild fire regime is intensifying,” Baltzer said commenting on the globally significant 2014 fire season in the NWT which burned 2.85 million hectares of forest and released an estimated 94.5 mega-tonnes of carbon – equivalent to half the carbon sequestered annually across Canada, largely by boreal forests.
“Between fires, boreal soils accumulate carbon, and under normal circumstances, only some of this carbon is released when the forests experience the next fire. This explains why the boreal forest has historically been a globally significant carbon sink. However, more extreme fires can burn very old layers of carbon, turning boreal forests that have acted as carbon sinks for millennia into sources of greenhouse gas.”
The frequency of boreal forest fires is projected to increase with expected climate warming and drying. Total burned area is expected to increase 130-350 percent by mid-century.
“What we are trying to understand is the dramatic alterations to ecosystems, impacts on permafrost, run-off and water quality. Land changes impact water quality.”
Northern Water Futures will focus on 4 main research themes
- Northern Water Resources and Security
- Integrated Ecosystem Change and Human Health
- Energy Security and Impacts of Industrial Development on Water Resources
- Impacts of Climate Warming on Infrastructure
NWF will build on existing efforts by Laurier researchers working in the North to generate a dialogue between scientists and traditional knowledge holders about the changing landscape. Indigenous communities in the NWT which account for approximately 50% of the population rely on the ecosystems they live in.
“Key end users have concerns about access to their land, safety on the land, and safety of their drinking water as well as how changes are impacting important food resources,” Baltzer said.
Researchers have facilitated an on-land-learning program with the small (Population 50) First Nations community of Kakisa. One of the most important parts of the project was the eagerness of the community to share traditional knowledge and to learn from western science in a way that could complement their lifestyle in the future. This two-eyed seeing approach emphasized the establishment of a local Indigenous Guardian program to promote stewardship of the land and waters through improved environmental monitoring. The Guardians are the community members that will be the eyes and ears as they patrol, monitor, report and manage a number of research activities.
“We have a great team of people working directly with communities to ensure safety and integrity of their food systems.”
“Another piece of our work is looking at energy security and impacts of industrial development on water resources,” Baltzer adds.
The development of energy resources within the NWT(oil, gas, biofuels) provides the simultaneous opportunities of enhancing economic prosperity and energy security. Most energy security issues are linked to water resource availability and water quality preservation. This research theme addresses major challenges facing energy stakeholders and concerned communities pertaining to climate warming and the uncertainty concerning the ability of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems to support these activities. “We are working closely with the NWT Power Corporation and looking at hydropower and trying to understand the changes.”
Permafrost and changes in hydrology also affect infrastructure in the North.
In much of the NWT infrastructure including roads, buildings pipelines bridges and landing strips/airports are constructed on permafrost terrain in many cases ice-rich permafrost. Rapid climate warming is presenting a wide array of challenges to engineers and managers responsible for the maintenance of existing infrastructure and the location and construction of new infrastructure.
Baltzer adds that the success of the research, understanding and future planning depend on the relationships scientists are cultivating with the Indigenous populations. “It’s a real opportunity to bring different knowledge systems together in tackling problems.”
NWF is also hosting Water Knowledge Camps with Indigenous youth as a means of supporting community driven research, communication and fostering stronger inclusion. “It’s pretty special seeing the youth become engaged in science and also to learn from them. We are learning what kinds of tools we can share with them to match their needs,” Dr. Jennifer Baltzer sums up the heart of the Northern Water Futures.
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