Gauging change in the parks
Studies may determine if global warming is reshaping Northern map

by Glenn Taylor
Northern News Services

INUVIK (Aug 29/97) - Two Parks Canada projects may help determine whether global warming is reshaping the geographical and ecological map of the North.

The vast majority of scientists now believe global temperatures are rising. According to arctic ecologist Martin Raillard, most scientists also believe human industrial activity is responsible at least in part for global warming.

Computer models, said Raillard, suggest the Far North, and Far South, will be most dramatically affected by global warming because the steep angle at which the sun hits the atmosphere doesn't allow for as much heat reflection as in tropical latitudes.

"Parks Canada's mandate is to maintain healthy, protected areas," said Raillard. "If we're losing species, or there is some change going on due to global warming or other causes, we have to know about it."

Monitoring programs now under way in Ivvavik and Aulavik national parks are recording plant growth cycles to compare with future programs. The idea is to determine whether new cycles are emerging that would suggest a change of climate.

"Plants are very sensitive to climate change, so if they do change, this will be very quickly registered," said Raillard. Climate stations are also monitoring wind speed and direction, air temperature, soil temperate, precipitation, humidity, snow depth. Satellites up above are taking snapshots of the ecology below, also to determine in later years if change is occurring.

The information received will be shared by the Arctic Council's International Tundra Experiment, or ITEX, which studies global warming effects in the North.

Ivvavik park chief warden Vicki Sahanatien is also engaged in a project that will contribute greater understanding of global warming, while protecting archeological resources threatened by coastal erosion.

The Beaufort coastline is constantly eroding and rebuilding, due in part to storms and wave action from the ocean. But global warming may speed up that process, by allowing longer open-water oceans, and hence more storms and wave action.

Sahanatien and her team began studying five points along the coast of Ivvavik in 1995, to gauge at what rate the coast is eroding. Using stakes to grid the area, the team then measured the coastline location, the water depth and ground elevations. They also studied wave actions, permafrost depths, water and soil temperatures, ice duration and other variables.

They findings were compared to photos of the area taken in the past, to find out roughly what changes have already taken place. This baseline study can then be used to study the rate of change in coming years.

Sahanatien said a number of important historical and archaeological resources are vulnerable to erosion along the coast, including old buildings, sod houses, stone rings and old gravesites. Inuvialuit leaders will have the option of determining what should be salvaged, said Sahanatien.

"There's natural change going on, but the most difficult question is determining just what is 'natural change,'" said Sahanatien. "This will help us determine what 'natural' is."

"We're supposed to protect these places, but if we don't have any information on whether changes are happening, how can you protect it?" said Raillard.