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Evidence is mounting that snow and ice is declining world-wide, initiating changes in global sea level, fresh water availability, permafrost stability, ocean circulation, and ecosystem functioning. Global concerns over how the changing cryosphere will affect communities and ecosystems have initiated the International Polar Year (IPY), a large scientific program focused on the Arctic and Antarctic. Involving thousands of scientists from over 60 countries, research projects focus on a variety of biological, physical, and social topics and explore links between the polar regions and the rest of the globe.
As a nation heavily influenced by the cryosphere, Canada has a significant interest in polar studies. Canada contributes funds and expertise to IPY projects and hosts many research activities within its boarders. To ensure northern communities are engaged in IPY activities, northern residents are often involved in project planning, management, administration, and research. More information on Canada’s contibutions to IPY are found at the Interim IPY Legacy Office and the Government of Canada Program for IPY.
Scientists from the Enhancing Resilience in a Changing Climate (ERCC) program contribute to several IPY projects, some of which are described below. By sharing knowledge and expertise with the international science community, researchers gain a deeper understanding of the role of polar regions in the Earth system.
- Spatial and Temporal Trends of Climate and Airborne Contaminants in the Arctic Region from Snow and Ice Cores
- Variability and Change in the Canadian Cryosphere- A Canadian Contribution to “State and Fate of the Cryosphere”
- Climate Change Impacts on Canadian Arctic Tundra
- Permafrost Conditions and Climate Change
Spatial and Temporal Trends of Climate and Airborne Contaminants in the Arctic Region from Snow and Ice Cores
Snow and ice cores preserve histories of temperature, precipitation, and atmospheric composition, providing valuable information about the variability of the Earth’s climate and presence of atmospheric contaminants. Cores from polar regions are particularly useful because they provide some of the longest records of environmental change. In addition, many airborne contaminants (particularly from industrial activities) migrate to the poles due to atmospheric circulation patterns. Examining the signatures of these contaminants in annual layers of snow and ice is important in studies related to the health and well-being of Northerners.
Scientists from the ERCC program contribute to several IPY projects by providing expertise in ice core recovery and analysis. Contributions to the IPY include:
- A study quantifying levels and accumulation rates of airborne contaminants in the Arctic. Building on past research that found a gradient of pollution levels across the Arctic Ocean, this study seeks to determine what changes are occurring in the deposition of contaminants.
- A study seeking to extend the record of atmospheric mercury and trace metals to northern Ellesmere Island by obtaining snow and ice cores.
- Pollen analysis on snow and ice cores to infer regional climate histories (view article in Natural Elements Newsletter, Pollen in the High Arctic).
GSC scientist James Zheng and University of Ottawa student David Bass digging up a snow pit near Mount Oxford, Quttinirpaaq National Park, northern Ellesmere Island, in May 2008. Samples collected from the wall of the pit will be used to measure atmospheric contaminant deposition in the Canadian Arctic.
- Contributions to the North Greenland Eemian Ice Drilling (NEEM) project, a large-scale multi-national program aimed at retrieving a deep ice core including the last interglacial (Eemian) period (known as the Sangamonian stage in North America). Obtaining records from this period is directly related to current concerns of environmental change, as the Eemian/Sangamonian period was associated with warmer temperatures and higher sea levels.
Results to date from snow samples analysed from the Canadian Arctic indicate that methylmercury (formed in aquatic systems from inorganic mercury) is deposited in the Arctic from the atmosphere. Analyses is underway that will obtain a 50 year record of mercury deposition on northern Ellesmere Island; preliminary results indicate that levels have been fluctuating for the past 30 years. The NEEM drilling operation will occur in the summer of 2009, in which two NRCan scientists will be assisting with drilling activities in Greenland. For more information and results of ice core studies, please see the ERCC activity Ice-core based studies of climate and atmospheric changes.
IPY Projects this work contributes to:
For more information about NRCan’s contributions to these IPY projects, please contact Jocelyne Bourgeois.
On Devon Ice Cap, GSC scientist Jocelyne Bourgeois collects large snow samples to study the seasonal pollen deposition on the ice cap.
Snow samples collected in deep snow pits excavated about 350 m to the north of the camp were hauled back to camp every night. (Quttinirpaaq National Park, northern Ellesmere Island)
GSC scientist Christian Zdanowicz making snow density measurements in a snow pit excavated on Penny Ice Cap, Auyuittuq National Park, Baffin Island, April 2007.
Variability and Change in the Canadian Cryosphere- A Canadian Contribution to “State and Fate of the Cryosphere”
Understanding the state and variability of the cryosphere in past, present, and future climate regimes is essential to project how changes in the cryosphere will impact atmospheric, oceanic, terrestrial, and social systems. The IPY “State and Fate of the Cryosphere” project coordinates assessments of the polar regions by partnering with nations, organizations, scientists, polar residents, and other IPY projects to assess the current state of the cryosphere, how it is changing, and what changes are expected to occur in the future.
ERCC scientists are contributing to this IPY project by applying expertise in remote sensing, climate analysis, and modelling to gain knowledge about the current state of the Canadian cryosphere and assess the changes that have occurred over the last 50 years. Canadian contributions also seek to explain why and how the climate-cryosphere system has changed, and are continuing to improve land surface and climate models for climate impact studies.
Results to date include the following:
- An algorithm for daily snow cover estimates from optical satellites has been developed and used to produce daily snow cover maps for the northern hemisphere (1982-2004) and northern western hemisphere (1983-2005).
- Clear-sky multispectral composite maps from the MODIS sensor (250m resolution) have been produced for 2000-2008 for the Arctic region; maps can be viewed at:
Example of daily snow cover from AVHRR Polar Pathfinder data for April 30, 2002. White is snow/ice, green is snow-free land, blue is ocean (Zhao and Fernandes, 2009).
2000-2008: ftp://ftp.ccrs.nrcan.gc.ca/ad/CircumpolarMap (To view this FTP site in Windows Explorer, click Page, and then click Open FTP Site in Windows Explorer.
Animations of ice dynamics in the Canadian Arctic archipelago: http://www.nrcan-rncan.gc.ca/com/elements/issues/33/index-eng.php (scroll down to “Video Highlight”)
Modelling and remote sensing techniques have been integrated to determine snow water equivalent in mountainous areas. Long term changes in the timing of snow melt and snow-albedo feedback processes have been quantified, which are important for habitat management and water supply. Scientists continue to work on quantifying snow cover trends and increasing understanding of albedo effects on snow cover, which will contribute to improved assessments of change in the Arctic and improved baseline data for climate change scenarios. Improved modelling will help to reduce uncertainty in climate projections, which will aid climate change impact and adaptation studies.
For more information and results about satellite-based climate studies in Canada, please see the ERCC activity National scale satellite climate data records of Canada's landmass and ecosystems.
IPY Project this work contributes to:
Climate Change Impacts on Canadian Arctic Tundra
The International Tundra Experiment (ITEX) is an international research effort aimed at assessing the effects of climate change on tundra and alpine vegetation. Involving scientists from more than 11 countries, research teams seek to document, understand, and forecast changes in vegetation, phenology, nutrient cycling, and carbon balance. Most research activities involve standardized measurements and plant manipulation studies (such as warming experiments) across a variety of Arctic landscapes. By running similar experiments throughout the circumpolar region the ITEX network can integrate results from different research activities and draw conclusions about the state and fate of tundra ecosystems as a whole.
The Canadian contribution to this IPY project is represented by CiCAT (Climate impacts on Canadian Arctic Tundra), a team of scientists from NRCan. CiCAT is mapping vegetation along three transects in the Canadian Arctic and developing models to monitor land cover change. This work collaborates with the CircumArctic Rangifer Monitoring and Assessment (CARMA) network to investigate changes in habitat quality of the Bathurst caribou herd, which experienced a 74% decline in population during 1986-2006.
Results from the CiCAT team indicate that climate warming in the summer months is having an impact on the forage quality for the Bathurst caribou herd:
- Land cover classification using Landsat images around 1990 and 2000 indicate a 35% reduction in woodland area (an indicator of winter forage availability) in the winter range of the Bathurst caribou herd. Statistical analyses revealed a correlation between burned areas and average June-September air temperatures, suggesting that fires are more likely to occur when air temperatures are warmer.
- The average concentration of nitrogen in leaves at peak foliage in the summer range of the Bathurst caribou herd was found to correspond to the average length of the growing season. Longer growing seasons lower leaf nitrogen concentration at peak foliage, which decreases summer forage quality.
Woodland area within the Bathurst caribou herd’s winter range decreased by 35% from 1990 to 2000 (derived from Landsat images).
Field measurements including percent vegetation cover, biomass, leaf area index (LAI), permafrost active layer, and wetland types were collected in Ivvavik and Torngat National Parks and were used to calibrate and validate baseline and change detection maps. Maps have been developed to quantify forage availability in the summer and winter ranges of the Bathurst caribou herd. Future activities will expand the caribou habitat study to other herds in the Northwest Territories, take field measurements in the Similic National Park, and extend baseline mapping and change detection products over the Ivvavik and Torngat National Parks. For more information and results about climate change studies in northern habitats, please see the ERCC activity Assessment of climate change impacts on a wildlife habitat economically important for northerners.
IPY Projects this work contributes to:
For more information about NRCan’s contributions to this IPY project, please contact Wenjun Chen
Permafrost Conditions and Climate Change
Over 25% of the Earth’s land surface is characterized by permafrost conditions. Frozen ground poses challenges for northern development, impacting the costs and methods used to construct infrastructure and develop resources such as mining, oil, and gas. Climate warming poses threats to northern development because thawing permafrost will no longer be able to support the structures designed for its frozen state. In addition, warming permafrost may cause erosion, surface settlement, land-slides, and changes in water supply. In order to help residents, industry, and governments prepare for changing permafrost conditions, research is underway that seeks to understand the current state of permafrost and how it may change under future climate regimes.
Led by the International Permafrost Association (IPA), the IPY Permafrost Observatory Project- Thermal State of Permafrost (TSP) is gaining a snapshot of current global permafrost conditions. Involving researchers from over 20 countries, this project aims to harmonize the collection of permafrost data by engaging the international permafrost community to make standardized temperature measurements throughout permafrost regions in both hemispheres. By standardizing temperature measurements in new and existing boreholes, a benchmark of current conditions can be obtained and used to assess past and future changes in the permafrost environment.
The Canadian Permafrost Monitoring Network collects long-term field observations to quantify current permafrost conditions and detect future change. The network monitors ground temperatures and active layer thickness of permafrost in monitoring sites throughout northern Canada. Seventy long-term sites have been in operation for as long as 20 years and contribute to the Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost (GTN-P).
As part of the Canadian contributions to IPY, the Canadian Permafrost Monitoring Network has increased considerably over the last three years. In 2007 and 2008 new monitoring stations were set up in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and northern Manitoba as part of the Canadian contribution to IPY. The network now gathers data from more than 150 boreholes.
Permafrost measurements from the Canadian monitoring network have indicated a number of significant changes in the permafrost regime:
- Substantial reductions in permafrost affected area along the Alaska Highway (east of Whitehorse) have been observed over the past four decades.
- Permafrost in the Yukon mountains is warmer than expected based on projections using data from climate stations in valley bottoms.
- In the continuous permafrost zone at Herschel Island in northern Yukon the ground has warmed by over 3°C in the 20th century, and the mean annual ground temperature in the tundra of the Mackenzie delta region has increased by about 1.5°C since 1970.
Collaboration with partners in industry, government, and northern communities has aided the establishment of new monitoring sites. A number of communication and outreach activities including workshops, public lectures, and consultations have been held with northern communities to facilitate the exchange of knowledge between scientists and residents. Data collected from measurement sites will be used to build time-series, maps, and databases to improve our understanding of change in the permafrost regime and enhance the assessment of climate change impacts.
For more information about permafrost monitoring in Canada, please visit the Permafrost group of the Geological Survey of Canada.
IPY project this work contributes to:
Permafrost Observatory Project- Thermal State of Permafrost (TSP)