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Information about International Polar Year activities in
the Northwest Territories

IPY Update

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Table of Contents


Climate variability and change effects on chars in the Arctic

Harnessing science and local knowledge to better understand Arctic char

Arctic char 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 different, and they are key indicators of ecosystem health, making them ideal for climate change studies.

During IPY a network of scientists studied Arctic char biodiversity from Northwest Territories to Labrador. They also studied temperatures, contaminants and other aspects of where the fish live to better understand their biological context. Researchers also established community-based monitoring to help assess local char biodiversity, including a program in Sachs Harbour. Education programs were also developed in several northern communities to involve northern youth, fishers and resource co-managers.

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.

Wekweeti and Lutsel K’e are two of the 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.

Climate plays a central role in controlling caribou abundance and distribution, so researchers are very excited about a caribou climate database developed during IPY. The database pulls together thirty years of daily climate data for over 100 variables across the circumpolar north. Developing this tool involved intensive collaboration between agencies around the world that shared data for migratory tundra herds during winter, spring, calving, summer and fall. With this data, CARMA will highlight the similarities and differences among the herds as well as provide information online for researchers to explore their own studies.

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Logistics and Licensing

Supporting safe travel for IPY researchers

When it became clear that International Polar Year was going to bring large numbers of researchers to the Arctic, organizations like the RCMP and Coast Guard Auxiliary started to get ready. Since 2007 hundreds of scientists involved in dozens of IPY projects have been working across the North. Most come and go without incident, but they are supported by a network of community-based emergency response teams.

“Thanks to IPY funding, we were able to equip each Coast Guard Auxiliary unit in the Arctic with core search and rescue gear including a laptop, floater suits, satellite phones and GPS units,” says Jack Kruger, NWT search and rescue coordinator for the RCMP. In addition, the RCMP delivered communications training in communities. The Coast Guard Auxiliary maintains 17 boats at units in Aklavik, Inuvik, Yellowknife, Hay River, Fort Resolution, Fort Chipewyan and Fort McMurray.

Did you know?

Biologists involved in the Ice Patch project are examining ancient caribou dung for plant remains, insect parts, pollen, and caribou parasites that might be several thousand years old.

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Training, Communications and Outreach

NWT post-secondary students get prime fieldwork experiences

Originally from Inuvik, Kate Snow, an enthusiastic first year science student spent Summer 2009 in the field providing logistics and technical support to IPY-funded research projects in the Western Arctic. 

Along with five other post-secondary students – Andrew Fehr, Tamara Hansen, Chad Larocque, Kyle Kuptana and Daniel Fehr – Kate was part of an intensive training project coordinated by the Aurora Research Institute.  Her multiple field placements included two IPY projects (Treeline Dynamics in the Western Canadian Arctic, Permafrost in the Western Arctic: Herschel Island) as well as a stint in the Beaufort Sea aboard the CCGS Nahidik conducting marine studies.  Kate Snow couldn’t have dreamed up a better way to launch her university studies.

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People and Communities

A world preserved in ice

The ice patches high on the north slopes of the Mackenzie Mountains in the Northwest Territories have been around for nearly 5,000 years—but some of them might not be around much longer. A warming climate is taking its toll, and many of the ice patches are melting. As they melt, they reveal evidence of an ancient world.

For thousands of years, mountain boreal caribou have been retreating to the ice patches in summer to escape the heat and insects that plague them at lower elevations. They left behind plenty of evidence—layer upon layer of caribou droppings frozen and preserved in the ice. And among the droppings are the tools of the people who hunted them, just as well preserved.

Tom Andrews, NWT territorial archaeologist, first visited the ice patches in 2005. The visit was brief, due to the cost of helicopter time, but he found pieces of a willow bow, dropped by a hunter more than 300 years ago, and that was enough to set the IPY wheels rolling.

Andrews’ team partnered with the local Dene community in Tulita, descendents of some of those long-ago hunters, to put together the Northwest Territories Ice Patch Study, a multidisciplinary project that included substantial participation by the community. The study has attracted media attention from around the world.

“In 2007 and 2008, we bumped up the whole thing,” he says. “We had a team of geophysicists [scientists who study the earth] in the field with us. And we also ran science camps for high school students out of the aboriginal community.”

The project team camped at a nearby lake and flew elders and students in by fixed-wing aircraft. On one occasion, they ferried everyone up to the ice patches by helicopter. That was a special experience, Andrews says.

“Being able to sit on the ice patch with a group of experienced and knowledgeable elders, who basically spent their entire lives hunting caribou and acquiring knowledge about that, and being able to ask them, how would you hunt this spot? That’s been very instructive.”

Among the artifacts the project recovered are a 2,400-year-old spear-throwing tool, a 1,000-year-old ground squirrel snare, and bows and arrows dating back 850 years. Finding them is less than half the battle, Andrews says. Preserving them means acting quickly. When the tools and weapons melt out of the ice, they’re wet, but they dry very rapidly and begin to crack, he explains. Left alone, they would tumble down the mountain, disintegrate, and blow away.

“Our task is to collect them while they’re wet, keep them wet, and bring them back to our conservator here in Yellowknife. She dries them very slowly over months and months.”

Andrews says the weapons, made with stone tools, are a testimony to the people’s skill: “They’re just beautifully made.”

He’s equally impressed with the toughness of the hunters who followed their prey on foot up to places that most people today reach only by helicopter.

“Essentially, in those days, people were as fit as our Olympic athletes are today. To hunt a moose, you had to as fit as the moose.”

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Change already evident along pipeline route

Change is coming fast in the Arctic, especially in areas affected by oil and gas development, and the international IPY project, Gas, Arctic Peoples & Security—GAPS, for short—set out to understand that change. Canada’s GAPS team concentrated its efforts on the Western Arctic, where oil and gas exploration and pipeline planning are already placing pressures on communities.

The Canadian project team is led by biologist Dawn Bazely and political scientist Gabrielle Slowey, both of York University. Slowey says their partnership is part of what made the GAPS project special: “What was really unique about our program was no other had natural and social scientists working so closely together from the beginning.”

Teams of natural and social scientists assessed a wide range of potential impacts of oil and gas development in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, from invasive plant species to housing security and homelessness, mental health services, and the relative advantages of self-government in indigenous communities.

The GAPS researchers found that people of the Mackenzie Valley and nearby communities are already living with development-related change. Impacts include increasing homelessness and not enough mental health services.  Bazely’s sub-team, which looked at the problem of invasive species, found alien plant species already present in many places, some with the potential to spread and alter northern ecosystems. A warming climate and construction disturbance from the building of roads and pipelines will make their spread more likely.

Slowey, herself, spent three years comparing the ability of self-governing and non-self-governing communities to adapt to change. She found there is a difference. Self-governing communities, such as Old Crow, can make their own decisions, whereas non-self-governing communities, such as Tuktoyaktuk, have to work through multiple layers of government.

“Self-government removes all those layers and gives more local empowerment,” she says.

The Canadian GAPS team members did more than look for problems. They also came up with solutions or, at least, paths to solutions. Bazely and Slowey have been touring communities along the route of the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline to bring their results directly to residents. In Fort Simpson, the most southerly stop on their route, they told community members that non-indigenous plants are growing along roadsides as well as in local gardens.

"As things warm, inevitably they'll spread," Bazely said. However, she added, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While some plants can damage the existing ecosystem or make animals sick, others—such as food crops—might be the start of a new local industry. Another way to reduce the importation of new species is to develop local seed-supply businesses.

Essentially, the solution is knowledge, and planning based on that knowledge, Bazely said. Her team has already prepared a report on invasive-species planning for the territorial government. The GAPS researchers are also working on journal articles and a book that will take the project’s findings to a larger audience.

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Major study assesses Inuit health

Inuvialuit are interested in health information that can help them make decisions and respond to changes affecting their communities. During IPY, researchers led a health research project across the North. In 2008 they surveyed 288 households and 362 adults in six Inuvialuit Settlement Region communities.  Households were randomly selected and adults 18 years and older could participate in the survey. In some communities the appointments were held aboard the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Amundsen.

Some results:

  • Over 70% of participants reported their health to be good, very good or excellent.
  • Many homes were in need of major repairs and families with children experienced overcrowding.
  • English was the dominant language.
  • Most homes had smokers.
  • Food insecurity was a problem.
  • Diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure and high cholesterol were common health problems.
  • The majority of participants were classified as overweight and obese.

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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Ulukhaktok plans for adapting to a changing environment

International Polar Year brought researchers together from around the world to work on questions of shared scientific interest. One of these IPY groups consisted of partners from eight Arctic nations who were interested in exploring how Arctic communities are affected by changing environmental and social conditions. Community Adaptation and Vulnerability in Arctic Regions (CAVIAR) was an international project that developed comparable case studies across the Arctic. Their goal was to better understand community vulnerabilities and changes in order to help them develop response plans and strategies.

Ulukhaktok was among the case studies. Tristan Pearce, a researcher from University of Guelph, worked with the community to identify stresses and vulnerabilities to changes in its environment, assess its experience dealing with change, and develop coping strategies. Through workshops, interviews, key stakeholder engagement, and analysis of other research, strategies for addressing key vulnerabilities were developed.

In Ulukhaktok, climatic changes are presenting greater risks to harvesters. For example, changes in temperature, seasonal patterns, and sea ice and wind dynamics are affecting people’s ability to safely hunt and travel, which affects their subsistence lifestyle. Residents are already coping with these and other changes but there are limits to adaptation. People have limited capital resources (e.g. to purchase needed equipment and supplies), environmental knowledge and land skills are changing among generations, and many suffer from substance abuse, sapping both their material resources, motivation, and impairing decision making.

In general CAVIAR researchers found that vulnerabilities vary among communities across the Circumpolar North. Climate change poses an imminent threat to infrastructure in some communities whereas others are facing challenges related to sea ice dynamics and wildlife health. At the same time, many Arctic communities share similar histories of settlement, residential education, and strongly fluctuating social, economic and environmental changes. These and other conditions influence how people experience and respond to changes.

Did you know?

The Beaufort Gyre, the huge circular current in the Canada Basin off the north coast of the Yukon and Northwest Territories, is the largest marine reservoir of freshwater on Earth.

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Oceans and Sea Ice

Rivers in the oceans

The Arctic Ocean is a small ocean connected to two big oceans—the Atlantic and the Pacific—and currents run like rivers between them, says marine scientist Humfrey Melling. The current-rivers carry heat, nutrients, and freshwater from one ocean to another, with effects far beyond the Arctic.

Melling, who works at Vancouver Island’s Institute of Ocean Sciences, took part in two major IPY projects that looked at the workings of the Arctic Ocean and its linkages with world climate and marine systems. He led one of the projects, the Canadian Arctic Through-flow study (CATs), which assessed how much water moves in and out of the Canadian portion of the Arctic Ocean.

CATs used instruments attached underwater to monitor the water passing through the principal ocean gateways to the Canadian Arctic. Now, for the first time ever, we have a clear idea of how much water is exchanged through those gateways, Melling says.

And it’s a lot. During the period the instruments were measuring, the amount of water moving south out of the Arctic totaled, on average, about 910,000 tons per second. Water flowed into the Arctic too. About 40 percent came from the nutrient-rich Pacific Ocean and 60 percent from the Atlantic.

Perhaps surprisingly, a large amount of fresh water pours out of the Arctic along with the sea water. It comes from precipitation, snow and ice melt, and northern rivers. The annual total amounts to more than 10 times the annual flow of the Mackenzie River. With a warmer global climate the amount of fresh water in the system will increase, the CATs team predicts.

One of the principal places where all that water meets is the Canada Basin, a huge pool of salt water and fresh water in the Beaufort Sea off the north coast of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. That’s where the second project Melling was involved in, Canada’s Three Oceans (C3O), spent a great deal of time.

C3O was led by Eddy Carmack, also from the Institute of Ocean Sciences. It examined the properties of the waters coming into and going out of the Arctic Ocean, and how they’re organized on the North American side of the Arctic.

The research was done aboard two Canadian Coast Guard ships, the Sir Wilfrid Laurier out of Victoria and the Louis S. St-Laurent out of Halifax, which were outfitted as floating science labs. Over two seasons, 2007 and 2008, scientists travelled on the ships, surveying and sampling as the ships made their regular patrols through arctic waters.

The ships also made a special detour to crisscross the Canada Basin and collect information about the Beaufort Gyre, a wind-driven current that carries sea ice, salt water, and fresh water in a huge, clockwise circle and affects the water and climate of all three oceans.

C3O was a demonstration project to show how future ocean monitoring could be combined efficiently with regular patrols in arctic waters. A couple of seasons are not enough to understand the processes operating in the Arctic and identify changes, Melling says. “We need sustained monitoring of key ocean properties.”

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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Coastal communities to see bigger storms

Violent arctic storms played out in a computer are providing a glimpse of the future for coastal communities like Tuktoyaktuk. An IPY project led by Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientist Will Perrie is creating computer simulations of storms in the Beaufort Sea to learn how the changing climate will affect them.

Among the findings so far: the loss of summer sea ice will make storms much worse. The computer models show that increased open water in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas can boost the speed of surface winds associated with a storm by more than 14 kilometres an hour. That means bigger waves hitting the Beaufort shore and even more coastal erosion.

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Land and Freshwater Ecosystems

Thawing peat a knotty problem

During the International Polar Year, nearly 20 researchers and assistants fanned out along the Mackenzie Valley system to get a handle on how climate warming might be affecting the region’s forests and peatlands—and the impact any changes might have, in turn, on the climate.

The project was carried out mainly by researchers from Natural Resources Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and several Canadian universities. They picked sites from the Fort McMurray area to Inuvik to cover the full range of permafrost conditions, from isolated patches to continuous permafrost. At each site, they studied how carbon moves through the natural system and how much greenhouse gas is being released from different kinds of landscape, such as upland forests, peat plateaus, and permafrost-collapse scars.

The reason for the study was the important role thawing permafrost peatlands play in northern ecosystems. As frozen peatlands thaw, regional patterns of water flow change, and carbon stored in decaying organic matter is released into the atmosphere in the form of greenhouse gases, especially methane. Those greenhouse gases, fed back into the climate system, can potentially increase the rate of warming.

The Mackenzie Valley is a good place to study these impacts because it has undergone more warming (1.7 degrees C) over the last century than any other region in Canada. In northern parts of the valley, the researchers discovered, warming soils are thawing permafrost and increasing the depth of the active layer, the top-most layer of soil, which freezes and thaws each year. The result appears to be increased growth in forest stands. In the southern part of the valley, however, increased temperatures have resulted in more frequent water stress as flow patterns change both above and below ground. The result is decreases in forest productivity.

University of Victoria scientist Michael Whitticar, who took part in the project, says the team is still analyzing the large amounts of data collected during the IPY and preparing scientific papers on the results.

“As you can appreciate,” he says, “the writing of such papers requires the time to gather the data, process it and formulate reliable conclusions.”

Early results indicate that the amount of greenhouse gases produced by melting permafrost varies, even within local areas. Production of methane, an important greenhouse gas, is highest in water-saturated areas, where frozen peat has thawed, liquefied, and collapsed. The greatest methane production happens in the regions with the most recently thawed permafrost. That means that more thawing, under climate warming, will likely produce more methane from peatlands.

However, in the upland forest and peat plateau, little or no methane is being released. In fact, there is evidence that increased forest growth—perhaps greater root activity underground during the growing season—is actually absorbing and transforming the methane.

So far, the picture painted by the study is complex, with a variety of local factors determining how the general warming trend affects the Mackenzie Valleys peatlands and forests. As the warming continues and permafrost thins and thaws, the picture is likely to get even more complex.

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Taking the temperature of warming ground

During the International Polar Year, scientists involved in an international project called The Thermal State of Permafrost took the temperature of frozen ground all around the world. Their findings?

“The patient has a bit of a fever,” says Antoni Lewkowicz, a researcher from the University of Ottawa. “It’s getting warmer.” And it’s happening all around the circumpolar North.

The Northwest Territories is no exception to the warming trend, says Canadian project co-leader Sharon Smith of the Geological Survey of Canada. Evidence from existing long-term monitoring sites shows that permafrost temperatures are increasing everywhere in the territory. The smallest increases are in the warmer permafrost in the central and southern Mackenzie Valley, and highest increases are in the tundra.

During IPY several new field sites were established that provided information on permafrost thermal state where very little recent information was available, Smith says. In addition, more than 50 new monitoring sites were added, mainly in the Mackenzie Valley. The Mackenzie Valley sites represent the full range of permafrost, climate, vegetation, and geological conditions in the region, stretching from the peatlands of the sporadic permafrost zone in the south, through the forests in the discontinuous zone to the tundra environments in the north, says Smith.

The goal of the IPY project was to take a snapshot of ground temperatures to serve as a baseline. With that baseline and the expanded monitoring network, the Northwest Territories is now in a good position to assess future change—particularly in the Mackenzie Valley corridor where thawing permafrost could cause problems for both roads and a potential pipeline.

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Forests and climate a complicated mix

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 change of vegetation from forest to tundra.

The answer appears to be, it’s complicated. Very complicated.

“Our key finding continues to be the large amount of variability,” says Karen Harper, project leader for PPS Arctic Canada.

Scott Green of the University of Northern British Columbia agrees. His study area was along the Dempster corridor, where the highway crosses from the Yukon into the Northwest Territories. There, where the land rises to the Richardson Mountains, trees are at the edge of their range, dwindling away into both arctic and alpine tundra. That makes it an excellent place to examine ecosystems’ responses under different conditions, he says.

In some places, there are signs of a shift in the treeline. Elsewhere, there’s no sign of change, despite increasing temperatures. Green says those differences are likely to continue.

“Moving into the future, we would expect to see complex and unique response to change, depending upon site conditions.” Even sites that are close together might show different patterns, he says, due to different local landscape conditions, he says.

The PPS Arctic Canada research suggests that managing forests in a changing climate might be even more difficult than anticipated, says Karen Harper. “This variation in treeline response may be extremely challenging to outline general strategies for climate change adaptation in Arctic environments.”

Did you know?

The IPY research project searching for ancient artifacts and caribou droppings in ice patches of the Mackenzie Mountains went viral. It was reported by news outlets as far away as Paris, France, and Australia.

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Change in delta water levels; unexpected high nutrient levels

During International Polar Year a large network of scientists worked across Canada’s North to study freshwater. The second-largest IPY project, Arctic Freshwater Systems was led by Environment Canada and involved 33 sub-projects and a network of over 140 scientists, technicians and students.

Working at sites and communities in Canada’s northern regions from Yukon to Nunatsiavut (northern Labrador), researchers carried out a range of field-based and laboratory studies to learn more about the hydrology and ecology of freshwater in northern aquatic systems. They developed models for changes in freshwater and nutrients, and they found new insights into how climate change is affecting aquatic ecosystems.

In the Mackenzie Delta, early results showed that over the past three decades summer low-water levels may have increased by an amount (0.3 m) equivalent to three times the local sea-level rise (0.1 m) over the same period. Researchers also found that river-ice breakup events are occurring less often in the delta. At the same time, they documented unexpectedly high nutrient levels during the ice-breakup period.

They were working across a vast area: the Mackenzie is the fourth larg­est northward flowing river in the world, with a catchment area of about 1.8 million square kilometres. The project analysed data on ice jams that form in Mackenzie Delta channels, and researchers improved long-term modelling of water and nutrient flows. Results will help scientists assess changes to freshwater flows into the Beaufort Sea.

Early results from studies of upland lakes near the Mackenzie Delta revealed insights about processes that could affect freshwater systems across the Arctic. Researchers found major differences between undisturbed lakes and lakes affected by slumping and melting of shorelines. A warming climate would likely cause permafrost thaw that leads to slumping, a process that delivers sediment, organic material and nutrients to freshwater systems across the Arctic.

However, the results were the opposite of what was expected. Researchers found sediments in undisturbed lakes were rich in organic material and some micronutrients, while lakes disturbed by shoreline slumping were found to be less tea-stained and clearer than undisturbed lakes. These early results suggest that a warmer climate will dramatically change the aquatic food web structure of tundra lakes in areas of ice-rich permafrost.

IPY investigators also carried out the most extensive research ever conducted in Great Bear Lake. Working closely with the community of Deline, they examined limnology (the scientific study of freshwater such as lakes) and heat budgets of Great Bear Lake. Great Bear Lake is very important to the community for fishing, transportation and tourism income. Some local residents were hired and trained to work on the project.

Scientists also studied biodiversity in circumpolar freshwater systems. They collected new data on water conditions, fish and invertebrates found in the bottom of streams and rivers across the Canadian Arctic. Northern communities can use this information to better understand and adapt to climate change. They may change their management decisions related to freshwater fisheries in order to safeguard local diets and better manage commercial and sport fishing.

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