The view from Nunavut

The view from Nunavut

As Nunavut turns 10, what are researchers learning about the changing territory, and how are they taking a different approach to science in the North?
April 1, 2009
Inuit woman returns from goose hunting on Bylot
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Inuit woman returns from goose hunting on Bylot Island
Catherine-Alexandra Gagnon

Orcas are found in oceans the world over but one place they have generally avoided is the Arctic. Until now.

Preferring open water, the animals are advancing into Arctic waters like Hudson Bay, lured by a smorgasbord of seals and beluga whales made more accessible by the trend in longer ice-free summers. But this has created a problem for Inuit hunters who harvest the same prey and who worry that these killer whales are stealing their catch, which could ultimately alter their traditions.

In a project that illustrates how modern science is being done in Nunavut, researchers are now working with Inuit hunters to study orca encroachment. And it couldn’t be more fitting, considering April 1 marks the 10th anniversary of Canada’s newest territory.

“A lot of the work I’m doing now is community based,” says Steve Ferguson, a research scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Winnipeg who is leading the orca study. “We’re trying to get northerners to do the science and as much as we can, empower them with science.”

His team began studying the orcas after discovering that sightings of the large predator in Hudson Bay had increased exponentially over the past few decades, suggesting climate change could rearrange the northern ecosystem and the lives of Inuit more swiftly than previously thought. Born of Inuit traditional knowledge and conducted partly to help Inuit manage the new species, the study is driven by Inuit needs, marking a new phase in northern science.

Around the time of Nunavut’s designation as a territory in 1999, new regulatory requirements were established for the territory mandating that researchers consult and share data with residents of the territory. “It created a new way of conducting research, especially for some senior scientists,” says Martin Fortier, executive director for ArcticNet, a network of Centres of Excellence which helps to facilitate climate change study in the North. “But among the young scientists, the mentality has changed. That’s the way research has to be done — in collaboration, and with better involvement and information sharing.”

CCGS Amundsen near the Belcher Glacier, Nunavut
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CCGS Amundsen near the Belcher Glacier, Nunavut
Laurel McFadden / ArcticNet

That southern scientists like Ferguson are learning from Inuit is not new, says Scot Nickels, senior science advisor with Canada’s national Inuit organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) — Inuit have for decades shared their knowledge about the North — but formalizing that process and giving appropriate credit, is. Inuit-directed research, validating traditional knowledge and consulting Inuit before projects are designed and before results are broadcast are all priorities for ITK and their research partners, such as ArcticNet.

Over the past decade, scientists have also made great strides in gathering data, working through CFI-funded platforms, such as the icebreaker CCGS Amundsen and the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (or PEARL) on Ellesmere Island. Based on this wealth of new information, there is a clearer picture emerging of a territory in climactic transition and a people challenged by the twin burdens of global warming and modernization.

“Ten, 15 years ago, everybody was complaining that we knew nothing. We had no baselines,” says Louis Fortier (no relation to Martin), the scientific director of ArcticNet and the Amundsen’s scientific leader. “And now people are moving into process studies and forecasting what will happen next. We now have numerical models of the ecosystem, so it’s been a giant leap in understanding.”

It is now known, for example, how rapidly glaciers are shrinking. But Martin Sharp, a glaciologist with the University of Alberta, is using satellite imagery and GPS sensors to track the changing dynamics of the Devon Ice Cap on Devon Island in an attempt to find out why.

He has determined that ice melting on top of the glacier forms small lakes that spill into crevasses until the water can force its way down to the rock bed. This can “lubricate” the glacier bed, causing the glacier to speed up and calve more icebergs into the ocean. So the size, number and location of melt water lakes and the distribution of crevasses help to control how fast the glacier wastes away, he says.

Sharp’s research also extends to the ocean floor. While aboard the Amundsen in 2006, his colleagues mapped the seabed in front of the Belcher Glacier, which sits at the edge of the Devon Ice Cap, to help determine the past extent of the glacier and its rate of retreat. Through ship and land-based research, they’ve determined that the ice cap is wasting faster than it can grow through annual snowfall. Sea levels are rising because of shrinking ice caps, and Arctic Canada has the third largest amount of land ice after Greenland and Antarctica. What happens here can have global implications, Sharp says.

Iqaluit, Nunavut's capital
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Iqaluit, Nunavut's capital
Leslie Coates / ArcticNet

Scientists are also learning more about the global reach of atmospheric pollutants, such as sulphates, smoke and other aerosols. Using Ellesmere’s PEARL facility, scientists like Norm O’Neill, from the Université de Sherbrooke in Quebec, have detected smoke from forest fires in Russia and Canada, dust plumes from Asian desert storms, and Arctic haze pollution likely due to Eurasian industrial emissions passing over the North Pole. Atmospheric aerosols also impact climate, either by direct reflection or absorption of sunlight or indirectly by their effect on cloud particulate properties and thus the reflective capacity of clouds. “If there’s one place you want to understand the effect of aerosols on the environment” says O’Neill, “the Arctic is the place.”

Perhaps most importantly, researchers have also been surveying the Inuit population to ascertain how their health and quality of life have been impacted by environmental and social change. The Amundsen twice served as a travelling clinic, visiting all of the Arctic’s coastal communities, including those in Nunavut. The survey, which covered a range of wellness topics, from dental health to drug use, is expected to help Inuit and policy makers design more effective responses to health and social needs.

Ultimately, says Louis Fortier, ArcticNet hopes to distill data from its entire project roster to produce four Integrated Regional Impact Assessments which will cover Nunavut, Nunavik, Nunatsiavut and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region. The assessments are expected to address every aspect of Canada’s North, including ecosystems, society, tourism, economic development, fishing, seabed mapping, international shipping law, natural resource exploration, health, pollution and climate. A geographical digest of this magnitude has never been attempted, and although Fortier admits it is daunting, he hopes to have the first set of reports published by 2011.

What does the next decade hold for science in Nunavut? Researchers see a larger role for partnerships with industry. ArcticNet, for example, is pursuing private funding to help expand the Amundsen’s research abilities without compromising scientific independence. Martin and Louis Fortier are currently finalizing a collaboration agreement with oil and gas companies to buy equipment, hire more students and share data.

With money that came from the International Polar Year drained, a bevy of new technology available, and the ongoing international dispute over Arctic sovereignty, it is crucial for Canadians to maintain scientific momentum and leadership, says Martin Fortier.

“The Arctic is now seen as a bellwether,” he says, “an example of things to come. We’ve basically regained the Arctic dimension of Canada.”