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Information about International Polar Year activities in Nunavik

IPY Update

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Table of Contents

Training, Communications and Outreach

Students explore Nunavik by ship

In August 2010, 77 students and 45 scientists, teachers, artists and mentors joined Students on Ice, an Arctic expedition aboard the Polar Ambassador through northern Nunavik and southern Baffin. One-third of the students were aboriginal youth, some of whom came from communities that hosted the ship on its two week tour.

The jam-packed research and education program involved community visits, shore landings, workshops, research, and more. The opportunity for hands-on learning and new friendships made a lifelong impression on students. Highlights included Nunavik Research Centre in Kuujjuaq, Cape Dorset, Pangnirtung, Auyuittuq National Park, and sightings of seabirds, walrus, polar bears and bowhead whales.

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Monitoring caribou at home and around the Arctic

Canada’s remote Arctic geography presents many barriers to research — a key reason why International Polar Year has been critical to the success of many northern science projects. IPY helped researchers and communities in distant lands to work together on questions of shared scientific and cultural interest. Few projects show this connectedness better than the IPY caribou and reindeer global change project involving researchers and communities in eight circumpolar nations.

This international alliance of caribou and reindeer (Rangifer) researchers, managers and community members has been developing tools and approaches for monitoring the impacts of global change on about 20 circumarctic herds of wild caribou. “We’re trying to understand the factors that influence population cycles in caribou herds, most of which are currently in decline,” says Don Russell, the Yukon-based coordinator of CARMA, the CircumArctic Rangifer Monitoring and Assessment Network.  

Research aside, the act of working together has led to standard ways of doing things and better communication. “Different researchers have their own ways of measuring things, and countries do things differently. The goal is to get everyone monitoring animals in the same way,” says Russell. For example, CARMA developed manuals, kits and training videos for communities and researchers across the Arctic to help them record information about body condition, caribou health, herd size, birth and death rates, and environmental changes that affect caribou.

Perhaps not surprisingly, researchers have found that many things—habitat, harvest, predators, diseases, industrial development, weather, climate change, pollution—may be interacting to influence caribou abundance. At this point, they think nutrition (abundance and quality of caribou food) may be very important in regulating the size of large herds.

Many northern communities rely on reindeer and caribou economically, socially and culturally. So in addition to studying the well-being of caribou in a changing world, IPY research projects also focused on how communities can sustain harvesting under conditions of change. “Given how vital wild caribou and reindeer are for many northern people, it's important to figure out how to protect the caribou during their vulnerable periods,” adds Russell.

Kawawachikamach is one of six caribou-harvesting communities from Alaska to Nunavik participating in a video-based project called Voices of the Caribou People. Through video, the traditional knowledge of indigenous people is documented and shared with other communities, scientists, policy makers, and the general public. It captures people’s relationship with caribou, how that relationship is changing and why, and how change is affecting caribou and local communities.

Building on research in Ungava, Steeve Côté from Université Laval has led a worldwide project looking at caribou population genetics. Côté and his team are using genetics to examine the connections between circumpolar caribou and reindeer populations. Caribou herds are dynamic and the environment is changing, so scientists and managers want more data about caribou herds. To complete their study, they obtained hundreds of samples from over 50 herds around the world.

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IPY funding makes library more useful

At the beginning of the IPY, the Nunavik Research Centre’s (NRC) Library in Kuujjuaq had a problem. The library had developed a bibliography listing its holdings on the online Arctic Science and Technology Information System (ASTIS), but the shelving method was still a mess. Physically locating a particular publication in the library was difficult.

All that has changed. With help from IPY funding and ASTIS personnel, the NRC Library developed a simple, yet effective shelving system. Now documents can be retrieved from the Library using call numbers obtained from ASTIS searches. Eight Inuit students received training and experience in bibliographic procedures, and the Nunavik Bibliography  , now contains descriptions of 6,200 publications, 1,480 of which are in the NRC Library.

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Beluga whales and satellites get together

Beluga whales with high-tech passengers are revealing new information about the sleek, white mammals’ underwater world.

In the Hudson Bay-James Bay area, a Canadian IPY team led by Mike Hammill of Fisheries and Oceans Canada fitted whales with transmitters that broadcast the whales’ locations. The instruments are attached to a ridge of cartilage on the whales’ backs.

“And essentially it's the same idea as piercing your ears,” Hammill explained.

Information about the whales’ migration patterns, the way they search for food, where they spend the winter, and even the temperature and saltiness of the water is beamed via satellite to a ground station, where researchers can retrieve it only a few hours later.

But Hammill’s team didn’t rely entirely on technology. Beluga whales have been important to Inuit diet and culture for thousands of years, and local hunters know them well. Nunavik community members contributed that long-term knowledge of the whales’ behaviour to complement the short-term data being collected by instruments.

Already, the project has provided new information. Genetic analyses showed that the whales of eastern Hudson Bay are a separate group from whales in the western part of the bay, and James Bay whales might form yet another genetic group. The researchers also found that James Bay belugas stay in their bay all year, although whales from other parts of Hudson Bay migrate with the seasons.

In fall, migrating belugas move along the coast where a northward-flowing current gives them a boost, the researchers discovered. Since the timing of the migration appears to be linked to water temperature, climate change could affect beluga migration patterns, with consequences for the hunting opportunities for Nunavik Inuit.

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Seabirds are big winter travellers

For decades, Canadian researchers have been studying the seabirds that nest on islands off Nunavik, Nunavut, and Labrador. The scientists had a pretty good idea of what the birds do in the summer breeding season.  “What we didn’t know is where they’re going in the winter,” says Memorial University researcher Bill Montevecchi.

As part of an IPY project called How seabirds can help detect ecosystem change in the Arctic, Montevecchi and his colleagues fitted 200 thick-billed murres and common murres with tracking devices that recorded their locations over the winter. They retrieved as many of the devices as they could and analyzed the data to figure out where the birds had been.

The tracking devices held some surprises. They showed that murres breeding in Hudson Bay don’t leave the area until late November or early December, rather than September as previously thought. Most of the murres from Hudson Bay and Prince Leopold Island winter in southern Davis Strait and the northern Labrador Sea. Those from a colony on Baffin Island travel as far as Newfoundland and Labrador or southern Greenland in winter.

Montevecchi says the birds are extremely vulnerable to ecological change or events such as oil spills in their widely scattered wintering locations, since they have to travel huge distances to find food in winter.

“On a day-to-day basis they have to figure out where food is, and they have about a three-day tolerance to do that,” he says. “If they don’t get it right, they die.”

Fortunately, murres are “spatial geniuses,” Montevecchi says. They can travel thousands of kilometres and still find their traditional nesting or feeding grounds.

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Harnessing science and local knowledge to better understand Arctic char

Arctic chars are important to the well-being of northern communities and ecosystems, so it’s important to understand their life history and how char are affected by changes in their environment. Char are circumpolar fish that adapt to most aquatic ecosystems, they are very diverse, and they are key pointers to the health of the ecosystem, making them ideal for climate change studies.

During IPY researchers carried out a large study in two parts: scientific research and community-based monitoring. A network of scientists studied char across the Canadian Arctic, examining fish size, shape, growth, reproduction, diet, migratory patterns and other aspects of their biodiversity.  Researchers also studied temperatures, contaminants and other aspects of where the fish live to build a better picture of Arctic char and their biological context.

Researchers also established community-based monitoring programs in Kuujjuaaq, Nain and Sachs Harbour to help assess local char biodiversity. Local involvement in monitoring is important for the long-term health of Arctic char. Education programs were also developed in several northern communities to involve northern youth, fishers and resource co-managers.

Fish samples were collected from 27 land-locked lakes on Ellesmere Island, in the Resolute Bay area, in the Bathurst Inlet area and in Labrador. Researchers were looking at char populations, food webs, transfer of mercury through the food chain, and thermal ecology. They found a surprise in Lake Hazen and other lakes in Quttinirpaaq National Park: three forms of Arctic char (large, small and benthic – that live in the bottom of the lakes) live in the lakes, rather than the two forms (large and small) they thought were there.

Researchers found differences in mercury concentrations that may impact how northern communities harvest fish. For example, sea-run and resident Arctic char had similar mercury concentrations, while sea-run lake trout in coastal Arctic lakes had lower mercury concentrations than resident lake trout. And mercury in resident lake trout was lower in lakes with sea-run Arctic char.

This kind of information can help subsistence fishers in coastal northern communities reduce how much mercury they ingest from eating fish, perhaps by choosing char over lake trout or by catching trout at sea. Information about the differences between char populations is also important in decisions about harvesting and sustainability. The high diversity of char can make decision-making more complex, but it may also make char more resilient in the face of environmental change.

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Times are changing for marine mammals

Life for arctic marine mammals is changing faster than anyone predicted. That’s the conclusion of a Canadian-led IPY project called Global Warming and Arctic Marine Mammals.

The project’s scientific team, led by Dr. Steven Ferguson of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Freshwater Institute, combined forces with Inuit elders and hunters in the Hudson Bay area, as well as with other research networks. Their goal was to understand how seals, whales, and polar bears will—or won’t—adapt to the effects of climate change.

One of the first surprising bits of information the scientists learned from northerners was that killer whales are becoming more common. Residents in Igloolik and Hall Beach reported seeing increasing numbers of killer whales in Foxe Basin, congregating at the floe edge in spring. Some have been hunting bowheads in the area, which is a traditional calving ground and nursery for bowheads.

In the past, sea ice limited killer whales’ access to the Arctic. The whales don’t cope well with ice. It can injure their large dorsal fins, and they don’t generally have the experience to avoid getting trapped in ice without access to breathing holes. However, sea ice is becoming less and less of a problem. Only a few years ago, scientists predicted that the Arctic could be ice-free in summer within a century. But change is happening fast, and Ferguson says that now some predictions are for an ice-free summer in as little as five years.

That is an open invitation to killer whales, but it makes life hard for ice-based predators such as polar bears and Inuit hunters. The Hudson Bay marine ecosystem might be shifting, Ferguson says, from a polar bear-seal system with Inuit hunters at the top, to a system dominated by whales, with killer whales at the top—a shift with serious consequences for the traditional Inuit way of life.

For millennia, bowhead whales have been important to Inuit culture. Bowhead whale numbers declined sharply during the whaling era, between 1860 to 1915, but the population has been growing in recent decades. It hasn’t fully recovered, nor have bowheads returned to all of their former range, but Inuit have again been able to hunt them. Now, climate-related changes to the ocean ecosystems that feed bowhead whales, combined with the arrival of new predators such as killer whales, present a fresh challenge to the bowheads. 

Killer whales aren’t the only marine animals taking advantage of changing conditions in the Eastern Arctic. Community observers also report more frequent sightings of humpback and minke whales, Greenland shark, capelin, and harp seals. That kind of community information is invaluable in getting a handle on environmental change, says Ferguson. It could take scientists 10 years to gather the same data, using standard scientific approaches.

Among the IPY project’s legacies is an ongoing community-based monitoring program. The idea is to continue the valuable sharing of northern and scientific knowledge, while providing employment and training opportunities for community members, Ferguson says. With change happening so rapidly, local observations are vital in tracking and understanding its effects.

Did you know?

Avataq Cultural Centre, which conducted community-based archaeology during the IPY, takes its name from the Inuit word for a traditional hunting float made from one complete sealskin.

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Land and Freshwater Ecosystems

Shrubs pop up on the warming tundra

During the International Polar Year (IPY), scientists, students, elders, and community researchers—more than 600 of them—fanned out across Canada’s Arctic to assess the current state of the arctic and alpine tundra. They were all part of a project called Climate Change Impacts on Canadian Arctic Tundra (CiCAT), Canada’s largest ground-based ecology project.

CiCAT researchers studied soil, vegetation, the movement of carbon, and ecosystem modeling. Project participants developed community-based monitoring programs to survey the small tundra plants and the berries that feed both humans and wildlife, such as the mountain cranberry (kimminaq), crowberry (paurngaq), blueberry (kigutangirnaq) and the cloudberry (aqpik). Other researchers studied tiny plots of tundra that had been experimentally warmed for years.

And in Nunavik, at Kangirsualujjuaq (George River) on east shore of Ungava Bay, two researchers from the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières took a close look at shrubs on the southern edge of the tundra to see if and how climate change is affecting them.

Benoît Tremblay and Esther Lévesque were looking for changes in the distribution of shrubs standing more than half a metre high. In Alaska, scientists have documented a spread in such shrubs on the tundra over the past 50 years, and satellite images have revealed a steady increase in greening across northern latitudes over the past 20 years. Tremblay and Lévesque wanted to see if the greening seen by the satellites came from more shrubs on the ground in Nunavik, as it appears to in Alaska.

The researchers compared aerial photos taken near Kangirsualujjuaq in 1964 with aerial photos of the same 17 square kilometres taken in 2003. They also took a set of ground photos in 2008 that duplicated photos from the past to see how vegetation cover near the community might have changed.

In total, Tremblay and Lévesque analyzed 6,300 hectares of land. They found an increase in shrub cover of 23 percent, or 147 hectares, over 40 years between the two sets of photographs. Most of the shrubs are dwarf birch, but there are also plenty of larch saplings, especially at lower levels, and some of them are growing into trees.

“Compared with 1964, 2,003 aerial photos show abundant new trees and saplings near and above local tree line as well as in non-forested openings inside pre-existing forested land,” they wrote. “New trees and saplings observed on the 2,003 aerial photos are essentially larch.”

Spurred on by warming temperatures, shrubs are increasing everywhere in the survey area, except on rock outcrops and boulder fields, the researchers say. Over the 40-year period between photo sets, 43 hectares once covered with a mix of shrubs and tundra have been overtaken by continuous shrub growth.

Change is taking place on slopes as well. Tremblay and Lévesque found plenty of larch seedlings and saplings near and above pre-existing forest cover, suggesting that the local tree line is migrating upslope.

The change they saw, the scientists say, is a major response of arctic terrestrial, or ground-based, ecosystems to the warming climate. It could have far-reaching effects on such things as the amount of snow trapped on the ground in winter and the amount of the sun’s heat that is absorbed or reflected back into the atmosphere.

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Caribou and climate could interact

One of the most commonly predicted consequences of climate change is the northward movement of treeline. But will it happen? Is it happening already? The IPY project, PPS Arctic Canada, set out to tackle those questions. PPS stands for Present processes, Past changes, Spatio-temporal variability in the Arctic delimitation zone and means, basically, things that influence the shift from forest to tundra.

The answer so far appears to be that there is no single answer. What happens to the treeline is complicated and not entirely dependent on climate.

“Our key finding continues to be the large amount of variability,” says Karen Harper, project leader for PPS Arctic Canada. Tree growth, what species grow back after disturbance, and the balance of species vary by region across Canada and even from site to site within the same region. In some places, the boundary area where forest gives way to tundra is moving. Elsewhere, there’s no sign of change, despite increasing temperatures.

In Nunavik, PPS Arctic Canada researchers Geneviève Dufour Tremblay and Stéphane Boudreau examined whether the combination of warming temperatures and caribou activity might increase the black spruce population along the edge of the tundra. Their study area lies within the summer range of the Leaf River Caribou herd, one of the largest herds in Canada with more than 600,000 members in 2001.

Caribou browse the lichen and trample the lichen-covered ground, exposing mineral soil and improving conditions for spruce seedlings, Tremblay and Boudreau explain. But that, alone, isn’t enough to grow more trees. You also need viable seeds—seeds that are capable of germinating and growing into seedlings—and that depends on warmth. In cold climates, many black spruce seeds aren’t viable. However, in the James Bay area where the study took place, the climate is warming.

Tremblay and Boudreau collected cones produced in 2006–2007 to compare with data from 1989 to 1995. They found that seed viability was significantly higher in 2006–2007. In fact, the number of germinated seeds per cone was more than 1000 times greater.

Seeds that fell on disturbed ground, with little shade and the mineral soil exposed, were the most successful. Almost three-quarters of them grew into seedlings. At the same time, there was little change in the success of seeds that landed in lichen. The reason is not altogether clear, the researchers say. The interplay between lichen and black spruce seedlings is still a bit of a mystery.

It does seem clear that climate change alone is not enough to trigger a shift of treeline in the study area. However, climate change combined with other things happening in the ecosystem might do the trick. The results of the study suggest that climate warming, together with caribou activity, is likely to increase the spread of black spruce at treeline.

“This variation in treeline response may be extremely challenging to outline general strategies for climate change adaptation in Arctic environments.”

In general, the PPS Arctic Canada research suggests that managing forests in a changing climate might be even more difficult than anticipated, says Karen Harper.

Did you know?

In central and eastern North America, the southern boundary of continuous permafrost roughly parallels the treeline. In contrast, large areas of forest in northwestern Canada are underlain by continuous permafrost.

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People and Communities

Eating better with fats

Eating foods that will keep you healthy isn’t always easy—especially in the North. One IPY project set out to learn more about some of the foods available to Inuit in Canada’s Eastern Arctic and about how people choose their foods.

The foods in question are fats, and the IPY project is called Urqsuk: The Changing Nature of Arctic Fats and the Inuit Diet. Fats are important for a couple of reasons. One is health-related: the kinds of fat found in fish and marine mammals help to protect the body from heart- and blood-related problems. The other reason is linked with the environment: many Inuit report seeing changes in the fat of important country food animals, along with changes in the environment.

As part of the project, researchers looked at what influences food choices in two Inuit communities: Nain, Nunatsiavut, and Clyde River, Nunavut. The Clyde River results are still being analyzed, but Nain results are in. There, the researchers found that 20 percent of people surveyed were concerned about levels of fat in their diets, mainly because of potential links to weight gain, diabetes, or heart disease. Another 45 percent were not at all concerned about the fat they eat.

On the subject of wild foods, 83 percent agreed that wild food fats are healthier than store food fats. However, getting wild foods is difficult and expensive. Obtaining store food fats is much easier.

People were also asked about their observations of fat in animals hunted for food. Many reported changes in the texture, thickness, and amount of fat, particularly in caribou. Such observations might be an effective way for communities to monitor local change in the environment.

Urqsuk’s project members are working on ways to deliver the study results to community members, health decision makers, and healthcare providers. Reports and community meetings are part of the plan. So is a film documentary called Urqsuk, The Changing Nature of Arctic Fats and the Inuit Diet—coming soon!

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Digging into Nunavik's past

For two summers, in 2007 and 2008, archaeological teams swarmed over a few small islands near Inukjuaq, Nunavik, on the east side of Hudson Bay. They were part of an International Polar Year project called Dynamic Inuit Societies in Arctic History. Its goal was ambitious:  to understand the roles of climate change and social structures on culture in the past 800 years of Inuit history.

The Nunavik project was one of six projects in different regions of the Canadian Arctic. It was led by Daniel Gendron of the Avataq Cultural Institute, the Inuit cultural organization of Nunavik, and benefitted from heavy community involvement.

“Avataq is an Inuit organization,” Gendron explains. “In the field, 85 percent of the crew were from Inukjuaq. I think it is fair to say that involvement from the communities in archaeological projects is excellent and superior to many other location in the North or in Canada in general.”

The involvement included local students. In 2007, nine Inuit students did a four-week apprenticeship in excavation methods, including surveying, technical drawing, using grids, and recovering artifacts. In 2008, 14 secondary school students studied the evolution of housing in the region and interviewed elders in order to incorporate traditional knowledge into the study.

Much of the work took place at an archaeological site on Drayton Island. Gendron says the site was occupied by Palaeoeskimos about 2500 years ago. Then, about 2000 years later, Inuit re-occupied the site and built qarmait, semi-subterranean houses with tunnel entrances. The archaeological crew discovered the remains of some of the later houses, including wood that had been used to build the roofs of the dwellings.

“I think the single most significant thing that came out of this project is the use of wood in important quantities,” says Gendron. “The quantity of wood observed in the excavated house would be expected from a habitation located in an area where wood is readily available.”

However, Drayton Island is located in the treeless zone. The tree line isn’t far—just 80 to 100 kilometres inland—but it’s more likely that the wood used was driftwood, Gendron says.

“We knew driftwood was used for various reasons throughout Nunavik's human occupations, but the extent observed on Drayton was unexpected.”

Two summers of intensive field work have produced a large amount of information to analyze and interpret. The project participants, including Gendron and the Avataq Cultural Institute, will be reporting their results for several years to come.

However, the project leader for Dynamic Inuit Societies in Arctic History, Max Friesen of the University of Toronto, says the exercise has already proved its worth.

“In the broadest sense, it is clear that the concept of an ‘International Polar Year’ was a success, in that the fieldwork, and subsequent interaction between researchers, occurred on a greater scale and with broader geographic coverage than would ordinarily be possible,” he says. “Equally impor­tant has been the direct participation of and collaboration with a broad spectrum of Inuit cultural and community organizations, as well as representatives of the Nunavut and Federal governments.”

Did you know?

The next big IPY event  , an international conference called From Knowledge to Action, will take place in Montréal April 22-27, 2012. It will bring together polar researchers, policy makers, analysts, community members, industry representatives, non-governmental organizations and other interested groups to discuss the next steps.

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Researchers determine whether vaccines work

Many infectious diseases are far more serious for very young children than for older children and adults. And many can be prevented by vaccination. In 2002 and 2003, two new vaccinations were added to immunization schedules for young children in Nunavik.

One vaccine protects them against the pneumoccal bacteria. It can cause a variety of infections, including brain infection (meningitis), bloodstream infection (bacteremia), lung infection (pneumonia), and a form of ear infection. A second vaccine, new kind of flu shot, provides protection from influenza and its complications throughout the flu season, from October to March.

The new vaccines should mean fewer sick kids in Nunavik—particularly, fewer kids with respiratory illnesses and ear infections. To find out if the vaccination program is working, a group of health researchers put together an IPY research project designed to follow up on the health of children who received the vaccines.

They’ve been analyzing the records of about 3,000 children born in Nunavik between 1994 and 2005. The researchers are looking at three groups of children: those who received no doses of the two new vaccines, those who had some doses (partial coverage), and those who received all doses (full coverage) of both vaccines.

In 2011, the youngest children in the study turn six years old. With all the children now out of the extremely vulnerable age range, the researchers plan to visit all communities involved in the study and do a confidential review of medical charts. They’ll be looking for information such as the number of times children were treated for respiratory or ear infections, hospitalizations for pneumonia, or other serious infections. Since repeated ear infections can cause hearing loss, they will also look at the results of kindergarten hearing tests.

The study should give a clearer idea of how successful the vaccines are and might help other northern jurisdictions plan their vaccination programs.

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