The Arctic

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To understand climate change, we must understand the Arctic. McGill University’s polar researchers are focused on building a sustainable, healthy future for the people, land and resources of Canada’s North—and the rest of the planet.

McGill University’s relationship with the North goes back almost a century. J.J. O’Neill, former Dean of Science, was part of the 1913 Canadian Arctic Expedition, an ambitious effort to map the edge of the continental shelf and conduct extensive meteorological, geological and biological research. Continuing O’Neill’s curiosity, in 1960 University researchers established the McGill Arctic Research Station on remote Axel Heiberg Island (79° 26’ 0” N). The station is now a hub for a variety of research activity and there is a critical mass of McGill researchers, across almost every faculty, who are passionate about the northern lands and its peoples.

Not surprisingly, climate change is very much on many researchers’ radars. “What happens in the Arctic is a warning sign for the rest of the planet,” says Bruno Tremblay, assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. “It may be too late for the Arctic, but not too late for other regions.” Tremblay tries to be on top of all things Arctic, but he focuses on hydrology, sea ice dynamics and thermodynamic modelling. In 2006, he became something of a celebrity when he co-authored a report that modelled the regression of Arctic sea ice levels around 2040. The report predicted a steady rate of decline followed by a plunge so sharp that the only ice remaining in the summer would be around the North coast of Greenland and Canada. The well-publicized study helped sensitize the world to the urgency of sea ice loss. But it turns out Tremblay was wrong — and not in a happy way: In the summer of 2007, Arctic sea ice coverage went from bad to worse, plummeting to its lowest level in recorded history. Even Tremblay was shocked. “Climate-change sceptics complain that our models could be inaccurate about the rapid speed of change. The physics we can trust, but the timeframe we can’t.”

Just as the Arctic’s sea is rising, its lakes are disappearing. Jeff McKenzie, assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, has spent the better part of the last decade looking at how to simulate the movement of water and heat in the permafrost and peatland of northern regions. He’s currently working on a computer model, called SUTRA 3.0, that will describe the movement of water and heat in the ground. McKenzie hopes SUTRA 3.0 may help untangle an Arctic mystery: For the past 30 years, the thousands of lakes dotting northern maps have been slowly draining away. “What we think might be happening,” says McKenzie, “is that the water in lakes acts as an insulator, and as the floor of the lake warms up, it thaws the permafrost and the water drains out.” This loss of surface water may have a large impact on the total ecosystem: more fires, loss of bird habitats, and changes to atmospheric systems. McKenzie sums it up perfectly. “When I saw that 125 lakes had disappeared just in one part of Siberia alone, I found it shocking.”

The northern landscape can be harsh, but does sustain life. Andrew Gonzalez, associate professor in the Department of Biology, is studying how climate change affects moss that plays a key role in the nitrogen cycle of sub-Arctic boreal forest ecology. Murray Humphries (Department of Natural Resource Sciences) sets his sights on somewhat bigger living things by studying how northern mammals respond to environmental change. And, of course, the Canadian north is home to some 100,000 people.

Northern communities, and how they’re adapting to changing conditions, are the focus of many McGill-based research projects. For 39 years, George Wenzel, professor in the Department of Geography, has been conducting an anthropological study of the economics of hunting in Clyde River, Nunavut. James Ford, assistant professor in the Department of Geography, is currently testing the hypothesis that the people who are the most food insecure in Arctic regional centres are those who are already marginalized, and not functioning in traditional food sharing circles.

The Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment, based in the School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition at McGill’s Macdonald campus, works closely with northern Aboriginal communities to address concerns about the integrity of their traditional food systems. From plant science to human nutrition, CINE approaches food issues from several perspectives. “People under 40, especially children, eat far less traditional food — moose, fish, fowl — and more junk food,” says CINE researcher Grace Egeland, a professor in the School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition. “Younger people are more likely to adopt a modern lifestyle and diet, and less apt to take part in activities such as hunting and fishing.” This shift puts an increasing number of northern people at high risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Egeland’s research has led to actions to modify unhealthy habits, designed in consultation with local communities. One such action builds on native people’s strong oral tradition by using local radio to engage in health-promoting storytelling. “For example, elders talk on radio about seaweed and plants and berries,” says Egeland. “Later in the broadcast, these traditional food items are discussed from a modern nutritional perspective that can guide healthy market food choices.”

The interest in the Arctic’s citizens isn’t limited to the present and the future. During the last ice age (some 20,000 years ago), a massive glacier occupied much of the North (and, in fact, much of what is now North America), depressing the Earth’s crust with its incredible weight. As the glacier melted, the crust slowly rebounded (in fact, it still is rebounding), causing the sea to recede. One human lifetime could therefore see a coastline move several kilometres. “Four thousand years ago, people responded to these changes by being very mobile,” says André Costopoulos, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology. “If the coast moved, you moved with it.” Costopoulos works with professor Gail Chmura (Department of Geography) to make paleo-environmental reconstructions of life among the prehistoric hunter-gatherers who lived on James Bay and in the Arctic Circle region of Finland. For Costopoulos, one of the values of history is how we might use it to build better futures. “We’re facing some serious environmental change right now, but we can’t respond the same way we did 4,000 years ago. Then, if the sea level changed by a metre, it wasn’t a problem. Today, if it changes a few centimeters, it would kill millions of people in Bangladesh, for example, because we’ve lost the mobility aspect of our adaptation. We all need to start imagining ways we can live the way we do, while restoring some of the mobility that allows us to face environmental change and adapt to it.”