Aug. 15, 2019

Is the future of the world at the top of the world? Climate change through the lens of the Arctic

When we view how climate change affects the Arctic and the far north, we get a glimpse of what may be in store for the rest of the globe. Research increasingly shows how climate change there can predict what happens elsewhere on the planet.

What is climate change doing to the planet? There’s no escaping the question. From melting permafrost and shrinking ice cover to tsunamis and the extinction of various animal species, the impacts of climate change on our planet's systems and our lives are trumpeted daily in news headlines:

Species at risk, nature is in the worst shape in human history, UN report says. Permafrost thaw in Canadian Arctic sign of global trend. Canada warming at twice the global rate. Arctic now locked into devastating temperature rise.

That crazy winter, that lengthy drought, that record rainfall that you likely scrolled past on your device while sipping your morning coffee (which is in danger if the industry can’t react to changing growing conditions in time) — it’s all part of the worldwide phenomenon.

While climate change can include natural occurrences such as ice aging, the term “global warming” is usually attributed to human activity, such as burning fossil fuels or transforming the earth’s landscape, that can boost the release of heat-trapping gases into the earth’s atmosphere.

When we view the impacts of climate change through the lens of the Arctic and the far north, we get a glimpse of what may come. The Arctic can be a bellwether to what happens elsewhere on the planet. Research is increasingly showing how climate changes there can echo worldwide.

Thawing permafrost, eroding coasts, vanishing sea ice

In 1986, Dr. Brian Moorman, PhD, was standing in Tuktoyaktuk, a hamlet in the Inuvik region of the Northwest Territories, above the Arctic tree line. He was an undergrad, researching coastal retreat and what causes it.

“The area was spectacular, I’d never seen anything like it,” says Moorman, now a permafrost and glacial hydrology researcher and professor in the Department of Geography in UCalgary’s Faculty of Arts. “Then something happened I’ve never forgotten.”

He watched another researcher walk out onto the permafrost, which was supposed to be frozen solid. Each step became more difficult as the ground turned soupy. Then the guy just stopped. His rubber boots were filling with mud that was laden with ice crystals.

“I was thinking how significant it was that this solid ground was turning into a flowing liquid,” says Moorman. “I was fascinated.”

What was unusual then has become a more frequent occurrence indicative of a global trend.

“Over the past 30 years or so, I’ve seen big changes in permafrost and glaciers, and the momentum is growing,” says Moorman, who does extensive work in the Canadian Arctic — including in and around Tuktoyaktuk. He uses geophysical, remote sensing and geochemical techniques to study massive ground ice, hydrology and terrain stability.

This solid ground was turning into a flowing liquid . . . 

“The issue is not just that climate change is happening,” says Moorman. “It’s the rate of change and what that can mean for us as a society.”

As the world’s temperatures increase, the Arctic loses ice. The area covered by winter sea ice last year was the second smallest on record and there’s no relief on the horizon. As it thaws, it may be disturbing weather patterns in the south, say scientists.

Permafrost underlies half of Canada and a quarter of the world’s land mass. It can be found in the high latitudes around the Arctic and Antarctic regions, though it can also be found in the higher elevations at lower latitudes. It’s thawing at an ever-faster rate.

The permafrost has eroded very quickly along the northern coast in recent years, says Moorman, who uses ground-penetrating radar and drones that take high-resolution images to measure erosion rates and ice beneath the ground.

“The coastline retreated 16 metres in a single summer a few years ago, which is huge. Even so, it’s hard to predict how fast it will go.”

Moorman has worked with the Canadian Space Agency to measure the ice loss of glaciers in the Canadian Arctic. He has also examined dry calving, the process that sees the front part of glaciers break off.

Moorman considers how big an impact melting glacier ice has on rising sea levels. One research program he’s been involved with examines the erosion of coastlines in the Arctic. If erosion swiftly increases, Tuktoyaktuk and other northern communities could be in danger of literally slipping into the ocean.

Arctic in feedback loop of warming

As permafrost thaws, it releases carbon trapped within it, and as it warms, it can release carbon in the form of methane or carbon dioxide (CO2) — both greenhouse gases that can worsen global warming.

Science shows that every year, more and more carbon is released, says Moorman.

“It’s what we call a positive feedback loop. The ground produces way more CO2 and methane, increasing the greenhouse gas content in the atmosphere, which warms the permafrost, releasing more greenhouse gases.”

Current models of climate change don’t adequately represent the processes and the amount of carbon that permafrost is releasing and they are likely conservative, says Moorman. Meanwhile, melting glaciers are contributing on a global scale to the rise of sea levels.  

Applying science to climate change is the most effective way to see what is going on now.

So what can we do?

We need to learn more about the system through more in-depth research, work on doing as little harm as possible to the environment and adapt to what’s happening now, says Moorman.

Knowing more about the processes that contribute to climate change, as well as potential impacts on society, will help to provide businesses with the certainty they want, he says.

The research work he does in northern communities and parks helps government agencies to create policy, he says, that he hopes will lead to sustainability.

“Applying science to climate change is the most effective way to see what is going on now and what may happen in the future,” says Moorman. “That will help us manage how we can live in this changing world.”

Warming poses threat with bacteria and viruses

Thawing ice and melting permafrost can release more than carbon that is threatening. Ancient bacteria and viruses including anthrax that have been trapped for centuries may be awakening as the climate warms, say scientists.

It’s the raw stuff of horror movies.

illustration of iceberg and thermometer

Warming temperatures are releasing bacteria and viruses that were previously dormant.

In 2016, a 12-year-old boy died in the remote Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic Circle and others were hospitalized. The culprit? Anthrax, believed to have been released by a reindeer. The animal was infected and buried beneath frozen soil long ago but was exposed and thawed in the summer heat.

Given that people and animals have been buried in permafrost for hundreds of years, other infectious agents may follow. Various studies from 2005 through to 2015 have discovered viruses and bacteria, trapped in ice and permafrost in Siberia and Alaska, that could be harmful to humans. As the Arctic sea ice melts, areas that were considered isolated become more accessible by land and sea.

Tsunamis among rising concerns, even in the North

If you think tsunamis are a concern only in southerly, warm-weather, coastal areas, it’s time for a wake-up call.

Dr. Dan Shugar, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Geoscience and Director of the Environ Sci Program. Shugar has researched climate change impacts of glacial environments, such as the sub-Arctic. To that end, he has examined the effects of tsunamis, those that occur in high-altitude, high-latitude environments.

Melting glaciers create lakes in the valleys below or rearrange landscape elements on coastal settings, says Shugar, whose research focuses on understanding how these glacial landscapes are changing.

“Combined with effects such as thawing permafrost, the hard rock that holds up mountains over time can weaken and fail slowly — or catastrophically,” says Shugar.

Illustration of large wave

Melting glaciers can cause inland tsunamis.

As glaciers melt, they create the conditions for tsunamis, says Shugar, whose research has included examining the Taan Fjord in Alaska, where a 190-metre tsunami (as tall as a 58-storey building) was unleashed by a huge landslide in 2015. The tsunami was one of the biggest in the past 50 years but did not kill anyone, partly due to its remote setting.

“Going forward, we have potentially more and more of these events occurring, and those may become deadly as we see increased infrastructure and tourism in mountain valleys,” says Shugar. “Imagine the potential for devastation if there were a cruise ship where a landslide-triggered tsunami occurs.”

These issues are important when considering inland mountain regions including the Rockies, where over-steep slopes are becoming exposed to destabilizing conditions, he says.

“Even here in the middle of Canada where it may be hard to relate to stories of, say, sea level change, these are some of the rare consequences of climate change that we should be paying attention to.”

Climate change shows how everything is connected

As scientists connect the dots between various climate change effects and how they relate to different locations, collaborative research is offering new insights into ecology.  

Dr. Greg McDermid, PhD, a UCalgary geography professor with a wide variety of interdisciplinary and collaborative research projects, investigates how climate change impacts ecological communities.

“We’re seeing what’s going on in the Arctic with rising sea levels and the melting ice, which are shocking,” says McDermid. “I’m fascinated by how climate change is impacting ecology.”

The natural world is a web of interactions, which McDermid views through the lens of phenology — the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life.

Whether it’s flowers blooming or butterflies migrating, these and many other things happen on a natural cycle.

“Ecological communities are built on these kinds of events, especially in higher latitudes,” says McDermid.

Changes are happening in the Arctic faster than in the rest of the world.

These cycles are being disrupted by climate change. For example, it’s throwing feeding and birthing cycles in species such as the Arctic caribou out of whack, says McDermid.

Changes in vegetation cycles mean the food that is available once the calves are born is not as nutritious or as easily available as years before. These changes reverberate along the food chain, raising stresses and posing more questions about potential outcomes.

McDermid’s research also suggests that in as little as 60 years from now, buffalo berries in the Rocky Mountains will ripen by as much as three weeks earlier, a shift that will affect grizzly bears and other fruit eaters who rely on the berries for food.

“What we’re seeing in the north is a fast-forward of what we’re beginning to notice further south,” he says. “Changes are happening in the Arctic faster than in the rest of the world. It’s a precursor.”

Oil and gas exploration boosting methane emissions, says researcher

As thawing permafrost in the Arctic releases more carbon into the atmosphere, McDermid’s work in Canada’s boreal forest is showing how oil and gas exploration is increasing methane emissions in the northern wetlands.

“Recent work by ecologists shows that in-situ petroleum development is primarily responsible for the decline of caribou in the boreal forest, and has shifted the composition of entire mammalian communities,” says McDermid. “But these impacts extend beyond animals.”

The boreal region of Alberta is rich in both wetlands and bitumen deposits. Peatlands — wetlands that accumulate organic material — store twice as much carbon as all of the world’s forests combined. They are abundant in the boreal region of Alberta.

“The peatlands in the boreal forest have been accumulating organic material since the last Ice Age,” says McDermid.

The bitumen deposits that make up Alberta’s oil sands cover an area that is roughly the size of Florida. Most of this deposit is too deep for mining, he says, and requires in-situ extraction using wells.

In order to locate bitumen deposits, we use seismic lines, which are petroleum-exploration corridors, he says. These are linear features, between 2 and 10 metres wide, which have been cut through the forest using bulldozers or other heavy equipment.

There are more than 1.8 million kilometres of seismic lines in Alberta. That’s enough to circle the planet 45 times.

In peatlands, seismic lines compress the soil and create wet conditions close to the surface. McDermid says this leads to boosted emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas with 25 times the warming potential of CO2.

We estimate that seismic lines increase methane emissions in Alberta by 4,400 to 5,100 metric tons annually, says McDermid, adding that he and other researchers were being conservative in their estimates. This is the CO2 equivalent of more than 27,000 passenger vehicles.

“Motivated primarily by the recovery strategy for boreal caribou mandated by the federal Species at Risk Act, leading petroleum companies in Alberta are pioneering new methods for erasing seismic lines from the landscape,” says McDermid.

He and other UCalgary researchers are working with industry partners and stakeholders to try to determine the impacts of climate change and how they can be mitigated.

“A lot of the research I do is collaborative,” says McDermid. “I work with industry partners who are aware of the impact they’re having and trying to understand how to do things better. Everyone agrees that doing the research is important for moving forward.”

Silver lining may lurk in the Arctic for Canada

While climate change poses challenges to Canada and its citizens, and is sometimes dizzying in its complexity, there may be an odd silver lining in the ever-increasing fog of information that surrounds it.

Dr. Quazi K. Hassan, PhD, is a researcher in the Schulich School of Engineering who specializes in geomatics — the branch of science that deals with the collection, analysis and interpretation of data relating to the earth’s surface.

He uses satellite-borne remote sensing data to generate local warming maps with enhanced resolution, allowing temperatures to be pinpointed to areas as small as a parking lot stall.

His work has shown that more than two-thirds of Alberta has experienced warming trends ranging from one quarter of a degree Celsius to more than 1°C. Calgary, Banff, Jasper and the northwestern part of the province have all been on the high end of the increased heat.

“Our hope is that with the data we are producing, local policy makers and stakeholders can come up with solutions for their particular jurisdictions,” he says.

In 2017, a report from the Munk School of Global Affairs showed that Canadian municipalities are especially vulnerable to climate change risks, especially in the form of extreme weather.

Canada could potentially benefit.

While Hassan’s research does not focus primarily on the Arctic, he does teach remote sensing at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, which considers the Arctic as a component in the lessons.

“We see in the Arctic that the melting rate for ice is much higher when compared to previous decades,” says Hassan. “So, right now, we are seeing that the climate is shifting.”

The melting ice could provide an upside for Canada and Canadians, he says.

“If, due to climate change, the Northwest Passage opens up more, Canada could potentially benefit,” says Hassan. “Canada could more easily export its resources through this passage, reducing transport costs. It can possibly lead to reduced CO2 emissions, if there is less distance to travel.”

Climate change in the north that could disrupt vulnerable species could lead to the generation of new species, says Hassan, and an advancing tree line in the north could lead to more forest for Canada.

In early May 2019, U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo rejected Canada’s claims to the Northwest Passage as illegitimate during his speech to the Arctic Council. The Arctic route linking the Atlantic and the Pacific offers a potential shortcut between Europe and China.

His comments are a sign of the North’s rising strategic importance for Canada, the U.S., China and Russia. Rhetoric from these countries about who controls the passage and potential shipping routes is beginning to heat up along with temperatures.

As melting glaciers in the Arctic open up new trade corridors, these countries are looking at the region as a potential global hub for commercial trade.

Canada considers the Northwest Passage to be internal waters, which arguably could give it control over what ships can pass through. The U.S. and others view the passage as international waters, available to commercial vessels.

Though the passage remains ice-bound for much of the year, global warming and the shrinking of Arctic sea ice is making it more usable. So, the commercial shipping routes dispute, along with potential geopolitical disturbances, makes research into the region’s ice even more timely.

Arctic offers important clues to future

Dr. John Yackel, PhD, a geography professor and an expert in sea ice research and remote sensing, says the Arctic offers important clues to the future.

“Satellite observations have shown that the Arctic sea ice cover has been rapidly shrinking over the last three decades, which we had predicted with modelling in the past,” says Yackel, who will be one of the hundreds of scientists participating in the world’s largest Arctic Ocean science expedition in September.

The collaborative Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) project set to launch in September draws researchers from around the world. Many of them will spend parts of a year aboard a floating ship trapped in Arctic ice, doing climate research.

Climate change that is affecting the rate at which ice and snow melt in the Arctic has repercussions, whether people live on the coasts or inland in North America and Europe.

As temperatures in the Arctic are now changing more swiftly than the already very warm equatorial regions, the jet streams that influence weather patterns around the world are being altered, says Yackel.

“Our planet has warmed nearly one full degree Celsius in the last 150 years with two-thirds of the warming occurring since 1975,” says Yackel. “Statistically, that is a huge change compared to what we have seen since human civilization.”

We have to now be prepared for increased variability of weather in all seasons, regardless of where we live, he says.

“The changes are felt everywhere,” says Yackel.

“We know we will get stronger storms, for example, because oceans are heating up and fuelling the atmosphere with heat. So, we’re seeing hurricanes and tornadoes at increasing strength and frequency, and we can show this with data, not just anecdotally.”

If climate change and shifting weather patterns hit us when we walk out the door, they pinch the pocketbook, too.

“We can see that climate change is causing an increase to the cost of insurance in this country,” Karen McCrimmon, parliamentary secretary to federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, told reporters in May. She was speaking in the aftermath of flood damage in Atlantic and Central Canada that dominated news coverage.

Whether that assessment is rock solid may be arguable, given the complexities of the insurance business, but institutions are at the very least taking notice of climate change. TD Insurance, for example, has created an advisory board on climate change and extreme weather.

Though climate change can prompt different views regarding impacts and causes, it’s clear that the frequency and intensity of, say, B.C. wildfires, as well as drought and floods, are being felt across Canada.

Navigating uncharted waters

As we continue to map the effects of climate change and move toward a future more dire and less predictable, events in the Arctic and elsewhere have shown the potential for politicizing issues at every level — international, national and regional — right down to the gas pump price when you fill your vehicle’s tank.

In June, gas scientists said the earth’s carbon dioxide levels are the highest they’ve been in millions of years – and the rate is increasing every year. The relentless rise of carbon dioxide is influencing global warming as well as weather patterns.

The recent push by environmental activists and various politicians to change the term “climate change” to “climate emergency” indicates the urgency that is echoing across national borders. Their consensus is that climate change (or climate emergency) is here, human activity is a factor, it’s getting worse and we need to act now.

We have to do our part in Canada and lead by example.

The responsibility for creating solutions filters down from the highest levels of government to each one of us, says Shugar.

“It may be unpopular, but we need to be radically mitigating our carbon emissions with things like carbon capture, cap and trade or whatever is being sought in your particular jurisdiction,” he says.  “I’m not saying we need to cut all fossil fuels now, but we do need to stop politicizing the issue and saying we’ll do it later.”

By understanding the ecosystem better through research, we can better predict what will happen better over time, says Hassan.

Yackel says individuals can make a difference through government initiatives that will help us to transition from fossil fuels to green technology in sustainable ways that do not do detrimental harm to our economy.

“We have to do our part in Canada and lead by example,” he says.


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Dr. Brian Moorman, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Geography in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts. His research interests are focused on permafrost and glacial hydrology. Read more about Brian

Dr. Dan Shugar, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Geoscience in UCalgary's Faculty of Science and Director of the Environ Sci Program. His research focuses on geomorphology, environmental geoscience, geomatics, natural hazards and glaciology. Read more about Dan

Dr. Greg McDermid, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Geography in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts. His research activities revolve around the application of remote sensing and other geospatial technolgies to environmental monitoring and ecology. Read more about Greg

Dr. Quazi Hassan, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Geomatics Engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary. His research interests include finding ways to use technology — including using and integrating remote sensing and GIS techniques – to help mitigate, forecast and monitor natural disasters caused by fire, drought and flooding. He leads the Earth Observation for Environmental Laboratory. Read more about Quazi

Dr. John Yackel, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Geography in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts. John remains active in sea ice research and is an annual participant of the Collaborative-Interdisciplinary Cryospheric Experiment (C-ICE) in the Canadian High Arctic. He is currently a co-principal investigator on several national and international climate change related projects to use remote sensing for examining Arctic sea ice - climate processes. Read more about John






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