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Information about International Polar Year activities in Yukon Territory

IPY Update

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Table of Contents


Energy systems on the tundra

It’s the catchiest acronym of the IPY: ArcticWOLVES, for Arctic Wildlife Observatories Linking Vulnerable EcoSystems, a project involving more than 40 researchers from nine countries.

The two Yukon study sites were Herschel Island and nearby Komakuk Beach. Researchers looked at every aspect of the ecosystem, from the permafrost beneath it to the birds overhead.

The goal, says ArcticWOLVES researcher Don Reid, is to understand the flow of energy in a tundra food web, and how change might affect it. The findings, so far, aren’t simple. Some changes appear linked to climate change, some aren’t, Reid says, and some things—such as the balance of plant components—aren’t changing.

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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), 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.

Old Crow 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.

One question many people are asking: how are environmental changes and human activities going to affect caribou? CARMA researchers are creating energy-protein models to predict changes in the body condition of caribou in response to industrial development and climate change. Looking at factors like diet, forage quality, activity budgets and snow depth, researchers hope to see how changes in the caribou’s environment will affect their daily energy and protein requirements. The model has been used to examine the cumulative impact of development in the range of the Bathurst caribou herd in NWT. Now they are refining and applying the approach to the Porcupine caribou herd.

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Atmosphere and Weather

Yukon station tracks international pollutants

Sticking up above the spindly northern trees around Little Fox Lake, north of Whitehorse, is a boxy metal tower filled with instruments.  It is part of an international network with a big job: to track major air-borne pollutants that affect the health of animals and people in the Arctic.

The network is part of the IPY project, Intercontinental Atmospheric Transport of Anthropogenic Pollutants to the Arctic (INCATPA), and includes stations from Alert in Canada’s High Arctic to China and Viet Nam. The Little Fox Lake station is helping to build a picture of what’s happening in the Western Arctic, says Canadian lead investigator Hayley Hung of Environment Canada.

Among the pollutants being tracked are persistent organic pollutants (POPs), mercury, and pollutants created through burning (PAH). They travel long distances in the atmosphere, says Hung, many coming from industrial areas of Asia and Europe. The Little Fox Lake station even detected pollutants that could be traced back to California forest fires.

Air currents high in the atmosphere bring the pollutants to the North, where they settle to earth. Hung says that’s when they become a problem for northerners. Plant-eaters, including caribou, absorb them from plants, and predators absorb them from their prey. The pollution doesn’t go away. Instead, it builds up in the animals’ bodies.

“It concentrates in higher than average levels in Arctic wildlife,” says Hung. “People eat country foods and then it builds up in humans.”

Understanding how the pollutants travel around the globe is a major step in controlling their spread.

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Training, Communications and Outreach

Boosting natural history outreach in Dempster Country

For years, visitors to Tombstone Territorial Park and the Dempster Highway have enjoyed the views, hikes and wildlife sightings, often in the company of guide interpreters. With outreach support from IPY, the Friends of Dempster Country were able to offer six jam-packed weekends of lectures, slideshows, hikes and walks, and hands-on workshops with guest scientists and artists.

The popular Natural History Special Events series included Weekend on the Wing, Botany Weekend, Insect Weekend, Mammals Weekend, Lichen/Fungi Weekend and Weekend on the Rocks. All the events were free and open to the public.

“It allowed us to bring quite a few professionals into our community,” says coordinator Sylvia Frisch. “In many cases we formed alliances, and our organization now has a network of highly skilled people to draw from in meeting our goals of promoting and facilitating natural history research and education.”

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Students get hands-on experience

In the summer of 2008, 11 students from Yukon College’s Renewable Resources Management program  got a chance to experience IPY research, up close and personal.

The students travelled to Herschel Island and Komakuk Beach, on the North Slope, to help with a study on arctic ecosystems. Along the way, they also hiked with an IPY researcher in Tombstone Territorial Park and learned about forest fire research near Eagle Plains.

Instructor Scott Gilbert says the students gained valuable, practical field experience: “Some afternoons were spent sprawled on the tundra carefully cutting plant shoots inside quadrats, with evenings spent sorting plant samples or live-trapping lemmings.”

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Student-led research unravels changes in Cowley Lake

When Cowley Lake residents became concerned about dropping lake levels, they approached the Experiential Science 11 class in Whitehorse to take it on as a study subject. With support from teachers, professionals and IPY, the high school students began a multi-year research program on the biological changes in Cowley Lake.

Since 2008, students have monitored snowfall, stream flows, water levels, water chemistry and weather, and taken core samples of lake sediment (the matter that settles to the bottom of the lake). They interviewed local experts and studied the lake’s history. With a grant from IPY, they purchased equipment to collect data about the lake.

“We engage through doing and by working in groups,” says student Hana Val. “It makes science relevant to community needs and interests, and it gives students challenges and responsibilities.”  The study has been a catalyst for science learning, and it modelled a collaborative research approach that brought together the community, scientists, high school students and other partners.

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People and Communities

Community-led climate research breaks new ground

Environmental change was a key theme for many International Polar Year research projects, but the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in took an innovative community-driven approach to exploring climate change in the Dawson region. They developed a traditional knowledge IPY research project that asked the broader community around them about perceptions of environmental change.

“The emphasis was on engaging people in climate as an element of planning their future,” says Parks Canada historian Dave Neufeld, academic lead for the project. Like many northern aboriginal communities, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in are experiencing the effects of climate change in their traditional territory, and their culture and lifestyle are being affected. “The First Nation’s primary objective was to exercise its traditional knowledge and use it along with western thought and have their interests heard and understood in policy and governance discussions.”

The purpose of their project was to gain insights and information from local, long-time observers of the natural world, in order to have a balanced understanding of the challenges they face. The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Heritage Department worked with a team of academics and developed a range of activities involving hundreds of Dawson-area residents.

Over two years, participants did oral history interviews in Dawson, Fort MacPherson and in the field and hosted a community mapping exercise for elders. The team also built project tools, such as traditional knowledge kits with digital recorders, protocols and permission forms for students to use in interviews with their elders about climate change.

“This project worked in many ways to involve young people in research and the gathering of traditional knowledge,” adds Neufeld. “The high school teacher got his students doing interviews, and Dawson youth attended the Youth Climate Change conference in Inuvik.” The project built on the First Nation’s annual series of seasonal camps that brought youth into the traditional subsistence rounds on the land: fish camp at Moosehide for salmon, moose camp in late summer, the caribou hunt in the fall, and a land skills camp for girls at Hissop Creek.

The project developed the careers of several local young people. Allie Winton, who was raised in Dawson City, coordinated the project for the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. She participated in the Circumpolar Young Leaders Program, and she is now working on a graduate degree on mine abandonment that brings together her interests and experience in oral history and traditions, First Nations and self-government, mining and the circumpolar north.

Headed by Parks Canada’s Dave Neufeld, the academic team worked closely with the First Nation and participated in community activities like the seasonal camps. Other members of the team were Shirley Roburn (Concordia University), Erin Neufeld (University of Canterbury), and Katelyn Friendship (Trent University). Each of the four researchers has submitted an academic paper for publication.

The project created a picture of how a small northern community feels about climate change, how they are affected and what they can do. “This project demonstrated that the First Nations community can manage its own research,” says Sue Parsons, collections manager with Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. “It created opportunities for seamless, meaningful relationships with First Nation people and academic communities.”

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Vuntut Gwitchin lead cutting-edge research program in Old Crow Flats

A short distance north of Old Crow lies Old Crow Flats, an internationally significant wetland complex that provides habitat for birds and wildlife and is the homeland of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. Over many years, local people have been seeing major changes to the environment around them – such as temperature, precipitation, vegetation cover, water levels, ice, wildlife – that are possibly related to climate change. They have also been concerned about how these changes are affecting their natural and cultural resources. 

The community decided to develop an International Polar Year research project using traditional and scientific methods to investigate these changes. They partnered with a team of natural and social sciences researchers from across Canada as well as experts from other governments. The project included different academic disciplines, among them wildlife biology, water, prehistoric life, traditional knowledge and community health. 

Entitled Yeendoo Nanh Nakhweenjit K’atr’ahanahtyaa (YHHK): Environmental Change and Traditional Use in the Old Crow Flats, this project stood out from the beginning for its community-led approach. Old Crow’s strong vision, its capacity to collaborate and contribute to research, and its investment in partnerships were key to the project’s success.

“How this project came to be is also important in terms of how science evolves in the North,” says researcher Murray Humphries from McGill University. Though YNNK produced impressive results on dozens of research questions, the project’s greatest legacy is how the aboriginal-led community/researcher team redefined community-based research in the North.

“The Old Crow project is a great model for a changing research paradigm,” says Yukon IPY coordinator Bob Van Dijken. “The community invited the researchers to Old Crow, and they spent a weekend developing the proposal, driven by community priorities and concerns.” Over several field seasons, a small army of researchers joined the Vuntut Gwitchin in the Old Crow Flats. Among the focus of study were permafrost, plants and animals, as well as food security issues in surrounding communities.

The community was clear about its objectives which were matched with researcher priorities. The team documented the history of environmental change in the Old Crow Flats. They studied the vegetation and wildlife, and linked them to processes in the changing environment. They looked at the impact of changes in the environment on traditional food sources, and considered options for the community to adapt. Finally, they developed a long-term monitoring program in the Old Crow Flats.

They confirmed that lakes in the Old Crow Flats are draining more frequently, and slumping shorelines and high water levels are leading to major drainages. Researchers found that Old Crow residents eat a lot of traditional food – mostly caribou – but that the favoured species are not taken in the Old Crow Flats. The harvest occurs mainly in other parts of their territory.

Among the key findings, researchers demonstrated that Old Crow Flats is warmer now than any time in the last three hundred years, says Humphries. “Spruce trees are growing much more quickly, especially in the last century, which corresponds with the instrument record of the last fifty years,” he adds.

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Oil and gas and people in the North

Change is coming fast in the Arctic, and the international IPY project, Gas, Arctic Peoples & Security—GAPS, for short—set out to understand that change. The project focused on the impacts of oil and gas activity on the people, environment, and climate of the North.

The Canadian project team was 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.

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.

Bazely and Slowey have been touring communities along the route of the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline to bring their results directly to residents. In addition, together with the International Project lead, Gunhild Hoogensen of Norway, they’re working on a book that will take the project’s findings to a larger audience.

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Dawson City 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.

Dawson City was among the case studies. Frank Duerden, a researcher from Ryerson University, worked with the town to identify stresses and vulnerabilities to changes in its environment, assess the community’s experience dealing with change, and develop coping strategies. Through workshops, interviews, analysis and other research, they developed a strategy for Dawson.

Dawson has a history of adapting to flooding, permafrost disturbance, forest fires and ecosystem shifts. Responses have included careful location of infrastructure, such as buildings and roads, and cautious local resource management. Researchers and participants identified future stresses, which are likely to include faster changes than they have seen in the past.  With permafrost-affected buildings, changes in harvesting activities, and other impacts of seasonal shifts, Dawson’s economy is vulnerable to many of these risks and further adaptations may be needed.

In general CAVIAR researchers found that vulnerabilities vary between communities around the circumpolar North. At the same time, many Arctic communities share histories of strongly fluctuating social, economic and environmental changes. Responses to change occurred at different levels. For example, individuals usually responded to local concerns related to food and livelihoods. Communities often identified research needs and local and higher-level governments usually took action on infrastructure risks.

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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 totalled, 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.”

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Beaufort storms will get worse

Violent arctic storms played out in a computer are providing a glimpse of the future for the Beaufort Sea coast. An IPY project led by Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientist Will Perrie is creating computer simulations of Beaufort storms to see how a 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.

Yukon Facts

  • The Beaufort Gyre, the huge circular current off the north coast of the Yukon and Northwest Territories, is the largest marine reservoir of freshwater on Earth.
  • In the Ruby Range, south-western Yukon, IPY researcher David Hik found that willow shrubs are moving upward into the alpine, especially in years with a warm June and July.
  • The shores of the Beaufort Sea are popular with butterflies. IPY researcher Marie Leung identified 15 species at Komakuk Beach and 19 species at Herschel Island during the IPY.
  • At Komakuk Beach, Yukon College students helped build an elaborate chain of snow fencing across the tundra as part of an IPY experiment to manipulate winter snow depths.
  • During the IPY, two researchers hiked the old Gold Rush trail through the Chilkoot Pass, collecting soils samples along the way to compare the deposition of air-borne contaminants on the ocean and land-ward sides of the coastal mountains.

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.

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Land and Freshwater Ecosystems

Treeline change more complex than expected

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.

In the Yukon, PPS researchers studied the state of the treeline in half a dozen regions, from the high mountains of the southwest Yukon to Eagle Plains near the border with the Northwest Territories. And their answers? It’s complicated—very complicated.

PPS Arctic Canada’s project leader, Karen Harper of Dalhousie University, says researchers in the Yukon  collected data on trees, seedlings, shrubs, soils, and microclimate. The various projects looked at the effects of fire, the expansion of shrubs into tundra, relative tree growth on north-facing slopes and south-facing slopes, and how trees spread and reproduce.

“Our key finding continues to be the large amount of variability,” she says.

At Ryan Danby’s study sites in the Kluane area of southwest Yukon, altitude determines where trees can grow. As they advance up the high mountain slopes, the trees get smaller and sparser. In most of his study area, Danby says, there’s no consistent sign of treeline advancing. However, he has recorded a dramatic increase in tree density on south-facing slopes. The change began around 1920, when temperatures began to climb in the Kluane region, he says.

"It's really quite remarkable. That change happened across the entire ecotone [transitional zone]."

Much farther north, along the Dempster Highway, Carissa Brown has been looking at the response of black spruce to the 2°C temperature increase that the Eagle Plains area has experienced over the past few decades. Black spruce forests, Brown says, evolved to function with fire sweeping through them every 80 to 100 years. But fires are increasing in frequency, due to warmer summers.

One part of Brown’s study area has been burnt twice in 15 years, a pattern that could become more common. There, she says, the forest is not coming back. The seedlings that grew up after the first fire were destroyed before they could develop seed, and they’ve been replaced by grass. The change in vegetation means a change in habitat for wildlife. In addition, the grass allows summer heat to penetrate further into the ground, increasing the active layer and leading to slumps where permafrost has thawed.

The expectation has been that the northern edge of the treeline would advance as the climate warms, Brown says, but her observations reveal a different pattern: “The treeline is actually degrading due to increasing frequency of fire.”

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

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

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Communities help develop aquatic monitoring programs

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. Researchers carried out a range of field-based and laboratory studies to learn more about the hydrology (the study of the movement , distribution and quality of water) 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.

One of the sub-projects was a water survey in the Yukon to assess the condition of selected rivers and to build a baseline of information for future aquatic ecosystem assessments. The project used Environment Canada’s Canadian Aquatic Biomonitoring Network (CABIN), a community-based monitoring program used to assess the biological health of fresh water in Canada. CABIN is based on sampling the benthic organisms, mainly immature insects, living in the bottom of streams and rivers.

Environment Canada hired and trained community residents to conduct the sampling, and local high school and col­lege students assisted with field work and laboratory analyses. They conducted sampling each summer, and by the end of IPY close to 70 streams or river sites had been sampled. Northerners also took part in workshops, field training sessions and apprenticeships. The program also developed a web-based e-learning program for remote northern communities and a user-friendly comprehensive guide to help communities develop aquatic monitoring programs.

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Shrub growth heats up on the tundra

As the air above the tundra of the Western Arctic warms, changes are also taking place beneath the ground, out of sight. University of British Columbia forest ecologist Suzanne Simard and ecology student Julie Deslippe studied some of those changes as part of an IPY project called Carbon, Microbial and Plant Community Dynamics in Low-Arctic Tundra.

Deslippe says they wanted to know how shrubs are able to expand and dominate the tundra so rapidly when climate warms. They based their work at Toolik Lake, Alaska, west of the Mackenzie Delta in the Western Arctic, an area experiencing the fastest rate of warming on earth.

“This regional warming is associated with many ecosystem changes that alter the Arctic landscape,” she says. “Perhaps the most evident of these changes is the rapid expansion of shrubs on the tundra landscape as climate warms. Shrub growth replaces tundra grasses, sedges, mosses and lichens, which decline.”

Simard and Deslippe used a technique that allowed them to track carbon as it moved through shrubs and soil by way of underground networks of roots, fungi, and microbes. Soil microbes are extremely important in the carbon balance of ecosystems, Deslippes explains. They break down the soil organic matter and they determine plant diversity. 

They found that the root systems of shrubs, especially dwarf birch, transfer carbon more quickly than other tundra plants, speeding it to where the shrubs need it for growth. This might explain the rapid expansion of shrubs onto arctic tundra as climate warms, Deslippe says.

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Permafrost snapshot reveals changes

During the International Polar Year, permafrost scientists 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.

Lewkowicz was part of an international project, called The Thermal State of Permafrost, which set out to take a snapshot of ground temperatures in both polar regions, including in Canada, which has more than a quarter of the Arctic’s permafrost.

Lewkowicz’s research group concentrated on studying Yukon permafrost, which ranges from continuous in the northern part of the territory, where more than 90 percent of the land lies over permafrost, to sporadic discontinuous in the south, which means there’s permafrost under 10 to 50 percent of the land. In addition, there’s permafrost high in the mountains—but nobody knew much about it until the International Polar Year.

Thawing permafrost is already an expensive problem in the Yukon. The stretch of the Alaska Highway between Destruction Bay and the Alaska border is built on ice-rich permafrost. The annual bill to repair its heaves and cracks runs at about $30,000 a kilometre, compared to $4,000 a kilometre for permafrost-free sections of the highway.

To monitor ground temperature and permafrost, researchers drill narrow boreholes straight down into the ground. The few boreholes monitoring Yukon permafrost were in flat country or valley bottoms. During the IPY, the project team—often with the help of mining exploration companies—drilled and put instruments into eight new boreholes at elevations ranging from 300 to 1,840 metres. Information from the new boreholes presents a complex picture, with permafrost underlying mountain sites at lower elevations, but none at all at the second-highest site, more than 1,600 metres above sea level.

Canadian project co-leader Sharon Smith of the Geological Survey of Canada says we learned a lot about mountain permafrost, including that we still have plenty to learn. Mountain permafrost can be affected by the underlying geology, altitude, vegetation changes with elevation, and snow redistribution. Whether the slope faces north or south matters, and so does the common mountain pattern of cold air draining through the valleys, leaving warmer air at altitude. The new boreholes established during the IPY offer the chance to monitor alpine permafrost to see how it works and how it might be changing.

Lewkowicz’s research group took a look at lowland, low-latitude permafrost too—by replaying history. In 1964, researcher Roger Brown tested for permafrost along more than 1,400 kilometres of the Alaska Highway, from Fort St. John, BC, to Whitehorse. In 2007-2008, the IPY group retested as many of the sites as they could find. They found enough sites to paint a revealing picture.

In 1964, Brown recorded permafrost at 58% of sites along the most southerly portion of the highway, between Fort St. John and Fort Nelson. In 2007, only 19% of the sites the IPY team rediscovered showed any sign of permafrost. Farther north, the decline was less steep. Between Fort Nelson and Watson Lake, the frequency of permafrost dropped from 55% to 45%. Between Watson Lake and Whitehorse, 56% of Brown’s sites had permafrost on 1964, but only 33% showed signs of it in 2007.

The numbers show the southern edge of permafrost retreating northward, and that matters, Lewkowicz says. Thawing permafrost can damage both habitat and infrastructure, such as buildings and roads. We’ve learned how to build on permafrost, the researcher says.

“What we haven’t yet figured out is how to build on permafrost if that permafrost is going to thaw in the next few decades.”

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