Changing Earth - Examining the State of our Cryosphere
A helicopter lands north of Gillam, Manitoba. Helicopters are used to access remote areas to measure the snowpack for comparison with satellite data. As part of the IPY cryosphere project, a helicopter based snow survey extended from Sept-Iles to Kuujjuaq, in Quebec, during February 2008. Photo: Arvids Silis, © Environment Canada, 2006. - Click to enlarge
Anne Walker has a calm face and a ready smile. It's not possible to look at her and guess she is overseeing the internationally recognized research being carried out by a team of Environment Canada scientists over nearly a 2,000 kilometre stretch of Canada's vast North. As Principal Investigator on one of the larger Canadian International Polar Year initiatives, Ms. Walker is responsible for coordinating a multitude of details to ensure the success of the Variability and Change in the Canadian Cryosphere project.
The Government of Canada announced one year ago its $150 million support for Canadian International Polar Year projects. International Polar Year (IPY) is a two-year scientific effort to create a more complete scientific understanding of the North that can be applied to address issues related to our environment and the well-being of Northern communities. With $4.5 million of the government's IPY funding, the cryosphere project involves 33 investigators from the Government of Canada, Canadian universities and a few private organizations conducting research in all of Canada's northern regions with snow and ice.
A scientist takes snow depth measurements using a snow depth probe. Photo by: Arvids Silis, © Environment Canada, 2007. - Click to enlarge
The cryosphere project captures this year's first International Polar Day (March 12) theme: Changing Earth (Past and Present), which recognizes the polar regions as critical archives of polar change and the necessity of understanding that change to better predict and understand future natural and human-induced change. The overall objective of the work is to observe and understand the current state of Canada's cryosphere - snow, lake and river ice, sea ice, frozen ground, glaciers and ice caps - to determine how fast it is changing and why, and to develop a better scientific understanding of how the climate may change in the future.
Ms. Walker's current focus is an intensive period of field research taking place in Northern Quebec. Researchers are gathering information about the snow pack from the air and on the ground. A second field research expedition around Inuvik is planned for April.
"We're going in to do a snapshot," Ms. Walker, a veteran climate researcher and now manager with Environment Canada, says of the field research being done in Canada's North for the cryosphere project. "We're trying to understand where things are at now. The data we collect will serve as a point of reference for future comparisons. If there's another such research project in the future, similar information can be collected and we can see if there's been any significant change."
The other part of the project looks at the past - the last 50 years. The research will try to relate variability and change in snow and ice to other variables in the climate system such as temperature, precipitation and atmospheric circulation patterns.
Examining the state of snow and ice in the North is done in a variety of ways. Researchers are analyzing satellite data and images, taking on-the-ground and aircraft measurements and investigating historical records. Field activities conducted last April involved scientists travelling by snowmobile across Northern Canada, from Daring Lake in the Northwest Territories to Baker Lake in Nunavut, to gather the first comprehensive measurements of snow cover across the expansive tundra zone.
Generated from RADARSAT satellite imagery, these maps help Northern communities see the sea ice floe edge and know where it's safe to travel. Interpretation: © Noetix Research, 2008. - Click to enlarge
These measurements, along with the ones gathered during this year's field research, will be used to assess any changes in snow cover across Canada's North and to produce reliable maps of snow cover across such northern remote areas of the country. Northern communities will depend on these maps as their climate continues to change.
The Human Dimension
One of the key aspects of the project is helping Northern communities manage the health and safety aspects of going out on the land and ice.
"We're looking at better ways to describe the current state of snow and ice in Canada," Ms. Walker says. "In Northern Canada, people rely on ice cover on rivers, lakes and coastal areas as transportation routes to get around in the wintertime so they can carry out their daily activities, including traditional hunting. Being able to provide information to people about how snow and ice is changing, maybe why it's changing, and get them better prepared for what the future may hold is key to our work."
Ms. Walker describes the human dimension of polar issues as a unique part of this IPY. As such, the cryosphere project involves local residents of the North as key participants in the research.
"The interactions that have developed between some of our investigators and the Northern communities are very encouraging," says Ms. Walker. "The communities ask very pertinent scientific questions because they are so in-tune with their environment. They're asking very relevant questions from their own perspectives and they have their own observations and theories on why their environment is changing. The people living in the North are eager to participate in their own way in the field activities, and they're hoping that we can help them answer some of their questions and have respect for the local knowledge they can share. During community workshops, my co-investigators have shown Northern residents examples of RADARSAT satellite images and they can look at them, pin point exactly where they are, and provide their own interpretation of the ice conditions because they are so in tune with their environment."
Benefiting All Canadians
The cryosphere project and its research activities will reap benefits for many groups for years to come. The satellite data will provide new products such as sea ice maps, which will be completed with Inuktitut terminology, marking the boundary between land-fast ice and moving ice; maps of river ice conditions around the community of Kuujjuaq in Northern Quebec; and satellite image mosaics of the extent of glaciers in the Yukon. These maps will be designed to meet the needs of a wide variety of users including Northern communities and water resource managers. The research will provide a legacy of information to serve as a reference point for evaluating future environmental change, supporting climate impact studies and for developing strategies to adapt to a changing environment.
The research being conducted by Ms. Walker's team and her co-researchers will also be beneficial to Canada as a whole.
"I think all Canadians need to be aware of how the northern part of our country is changing," she says. "Canada is a large country and some of the climate change signals we are seeing today may be a precursor to changes the rest of Canada could experience in the future. People are already noticing changes in snow cover and ice cover, even in southern Canada. Although the project is focussed on Canada's North, often our analyses do extend to more southern regions of the country. I think all Canadians need to know what's going on with our environment."
- Date Modified:
- In February 2008, up to 2,000 km of ground in Northern Quebec was covered over two weeks as IPY researchers travelled Canada's North by snowmobile, helicopter and aircraft to collect snow cover measurements for the Variability and Change in the Canadian Cryosphere project.
- The Variability and Change in the Canadian Cryosphere project is one of five IPY projects being led by Environment Canada.
- March 12th marks the third of the quarterly International Polar Days. International Polar Days were introduced to highlight particular aspects of polar research - March 12th focuses on the Changing Earth (Past and Present).
- International Polar Year has a 125 year history -- IPY 2007-2008 marks only the fourth IPY.