Understanding Changes in the Polar Regions

By Laura Nichol
April 2012

Hosted by Canada, the third and final International Polar Year Conference will highlight research and encourage action on key issues facing the Arctic and Antarctic.
Photo of a road impacted by permafrost

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The impacts of permafrost on a road in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories

Known for their glaciers, ice fields, sea ice and coastal ice shelves, the world’s Polar Regions are unique environments, characterized by extended periods of sub-zero temperatures.

To facilitate interdisciplinary research on the Arctic and Antarctic, the international community designated 2007—8 the fourth International Polar Year (IPY). Thirty thousand scientists and researchers from over 60 countries responded to the call, carrying out over 200 research projects on polar science. Canada made a significant contribution towards this global effort, supporting 52 of these projects.

The IPY has been followed up with two global conferences. Canada is hosting the third and final conference from April 22­—27 in Montreal, Quebec. Titled “From Knowledge to Action”, the aim of the conference is to share the latest research findings from IPY projects and to discuss how this new knowledge can be used to act on pressing issues.

Impacts of Climate Warming on Arctic Permafrost

As a key department carrying out Arctic research, Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) will be presenting research papers at the conference. Focused on polar phenomenon affecting northern communities, the studies cover the impacts of climate change on permafrost, glaciers, sea ice and coastal stability.

Map of the maximum summer thaw depth in Wapusk National Park and Ivvavik National Park

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Map of the maximum summer thaw depth in Wapusk National Park and Ivvavik National Park, averaged from 2000 to 2009

Two of these papers highlight the impacts of climate warming on permafrost in the Canadian Arctic. Permafrost is frozen ground, including soil and rock that has remained at or below zero degrees Celsius for at least two years.

One of the studies, led by Yu Zhang from NRCan’s Canada Centre for Remote Sensing, projected permafrost distribution and maximum summer thaw depth from 2010 to 2200 for a region in Canada’s Hudson Bay lowland.

Satellite data at a 30 meter resolution was analyzed and used as an input into an updated predictive model, along with topography and climate variables. The research indicates that the permafrost in this region will gradually degrade, but will persist for another 100 years in most of the areas.

Detailed permafrost mapping will play a significant role in the development of all-weather roads and other infrastructure in northern Canada. Parks Canada will also use the data to report on the permafrost conditions in Wapusk National Park, which is of particular interest to biologists studying wildlife in the region.

Photo of a peatland forest

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A peatland forest in the sub-Arctic region of the Mackenzie Valley, which lies atop permafrost

The other permafrost study, developed by researchers from NRCan’s Canada Forest Service (CFS), investigates the impact of a warmer climate on forest growth in the Mackenzie River Basin in Northern Canada.

Researchers chose 25 research sites spanning three permafrost zones to characterize the relationship between permafrost and vegetation composition and structure. “Our findings suggest a drastic shift in vegetation as a result of permafrost thawing,” says Jagtar Bhatti, an NRCan researcher in vegetation and soil interactions.

“Based on vegetation productivity records for the last 20 years, vegetation growth in these areas has increased overall. But in peatlands, the growth stagnated or even decreased slightly.” Peatlands are water-saturated areas lying atop the permafrost layer that hold large carbon deposits. “These vegetation changes have significant implications for the global carbon balance, as well for indigenous wildlife populations,” says Jagtar.

These studies, along with the others presented at the conference, help to further our understanding of the changes and impacts of climate warming on the Polar Regions.

Learn about NRCan’s continued work in the Arctic through the Polar Continental Shelf Program (PCSP), already underway for the March to August research season at Canada’s Resolute Research station.

Find out more about the third International Polar Conference by viewing the “International Polar Year Conference 2012” web site.

To read about related articles, see Arctic.

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