Arctic Adventures II: Observing the impacts of climate change on the Arctic landscape


Swimming out to the sea ice

Although one of the few remaining true wildernesses, I have become increasingly aware during this expedition that the Arctic is by no way pristine or independent of the influence of humans. Whether direct effects of development, or indirect effects such as diffuse pollution and climate change. It is an ecosystem of extremes finely balanced through evolutionary processes, which is currently undergoing change of an uncertain magnitude1,2.

Our dependence on this fragile ecosystem extends further than the resources we can extract from it. Of course, the Arctic is a valuable landscape in its own right, however it is also intrinsically linked to the rest of the globe. Its resilience to change and its capacity to influence global climate and ocean ecosystems should be a concern extending across latitudes, and is a big question currently being tackled in scientific research. 

It’s the end of the field season and as we take-off from the sandy spit of Herschel island and fly above the Mackenzie river delta and head along the Northern Coast, some of these changes already become apparent. At this height it seems easier to gain perspective of the landscape processes we have been studying..


Loading up and flying out in the twin otter aircraft

Loading up and flying out in the twin otter aircraft

‘Is Herschel Island shrinking or growing?’

The coast is littered with thermokarsts (also called slumps), a wall of exposed ice and sediment topped with soil and vegetation slowly thawing and sliding into the Beaufort sea. The island has no base of bedrock; it is formed of sediment, which is thought to have been pushed up from the sea basin during a glacial event. While some of the slumps have recovered and re-vegetated, others are growing and transgress, eating further into the landmass altering the shape and form of the coastline. This process accounts for a significant loss of coastal-land and deposition of carbon into the ocean, where it may then be cycled into the atmosphere, driving further warming through the greenhouse effect. The rate and extent of this effect is a question being tackled by the group from Alfred-Wegener-Institut (AWI), Germany, with whom we have spent  the past month.


A slump!


The ‘headwall’ of the slump; a wall of exposed ice containing frozen soil and carbon that thaws out during the summer and flows down into the Beauford sea.

Another notable trend from the air is the changes in vegetation from tall trees to krummholz trees, and then shrubs and tundra when moving north. This reflects the same pattern observed when hiking up a steep mountain trail, both are attributed to the decrease in temperatures on the way up. However, a warmer arctic climate has seen species boundaries migrate north (and increasing in altitude), while existing habitats have also become taller and more productive (possibly acting to sequester more carbon). The extent and effect of this observed shrub expansion, and its potential to feedback to the global climate, is a further question Isla and myself have started to tackle during the expedition.


Using a point-frame to measure long term changes in vegetation


Visitors to the Island

I left Herschel with the impression that as well as issues such as global climate change, direct human influences may also be a key contributor to Arctic change in the future. While the odd sailing ship is an aged observation in the Beaufort Sea, the mysterious icebreaker sailing from Victoria to Labrador with a ‘secret’ mission (seismic exploration was the most popular theory) seemed to me a symbol of development. Perhaps this is to be expected as the arctic becomes more accessible, a result of the retreating sea ice.


‘Mystery’ Ship


Officers ascend the island for breakfast

I guess it’s a valuable resource worth protecting, as one morning I awoke to find a strong presence of national forces on the island, a line-up of 20 or so individuals in uniform outside my window, from the Army, Navy, Royal Canadian Mountain Police, and Ocean and Fisheries Services! Half asleep, it took me a while to come to the realisation that the remote Arctic island wasn’t under siege. In-fact they just happened to be taking a group photo outside the historic cabin we had made our home for the summer. However, we had an even more exciting visit to follow: a few days later we strolled over the horizon to see a pod of around 15 Beluga whales surfacing just 30 m or so off the coastline on which we stood, also somewhat in camouflage next to the white crests of the waves around them.

If climate change, growing exploration and resource extraction all present themselves as drivers of change, then it is left to decide which pose the greater threat? But they are of course not independent of each other, and nor may be the solutions. During my trip, and actually most of my degree, I spent many hours pondering the drive behind research such as this. Is it really a burning passion to simply find the answers to the questions I pose above? Is it a mission to save the environment from the fate imposed by mysterious exploration ships? Or is it the draw of the beautiful, wild and adventurous landscape? I am starting to think these reasons are also somewhat inseparable.


View from our field-site: the flood plain covered in Willows, and on the spit behind it the deserted whaling community we used as a base


Team Herschel: the AWI group, the rangers, and team shrub (Isla and Myself)

Photo credits belong to all those on the trip!

See first installment of Arctic Adventures HERE

Relevant Reading and References:

1. Kattsov, V. M., Källén, E., Cattle, H. P., Christensen, J., Drange, H., Hanssen-Bauer, I., … & Vavulin, S. (2005). Future climate change: Modeling and scenarios for the Arctic.

2.Morison, J., Aagaard, K., & Steele, M. (2000). Recent environmental changes in the Arctic: A review. Arctic, 359-371.


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