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The Sentinel in the North

Updated: Sep 18, 2019

The Arctic has been called a sentinel region for climate change because the pace is so much faster up here than at lower latitudes.

Climate change is certainly incredibly apparent around Pond Inlet. We wake up to a view across the sound and see glaciers reaching down from the peaks of Bylot Island. These glaciers used to touch the sea. Now they have retreated up the mountains leaving dark grey bands between the ocean and the ice. The other researchers in the station talk about past summers where their hands worked in freezing 1° water for weeks. When we arrived, the water was 6 °C. The winter sea ice used to be 3 meters thick, now it is 1 meter. In some areas it is unsafe in the winter. It is also breaking up earlier. The banks around the salmon river (just west of Pond Inlet) are collapsing as the permafrost (permanently frozen soil) thaws and becomes unstable.

It is overwhelming and fast. There is no baseline data for the kelp forests in most of the Canadian Arctic. When we dive in these kelp forests, we cannot tell if they have changed. Maybe we have missed something. How long have these species and habitats looked this way? It is an immense challenge to understand impacts when we have lost the past.

Instead, we have to find other ways. We are trying to link the environment and the ecosystem. To do this we are targeting kelp forests found in areas with different sea ice cover, different sea temperatures, and inside and outside meltwater plumes. If we can understand how environment influences the abundance of kelp and what species are there, we can begin to understand how kelp forests may change.

Plumes of sediment run off a thawing coastline

One positive though. We have surveyed east and west around the areas. We now have baseline data for 155 km of coastline around Pond Inlet! These records and video of the amount of kelp, the species present, the habitat extent, the temperature on the sea floor mean that when we come back in the future, we have a baseline to detect change.

But we need to act fast.

The ice is melting.

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