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International polar year

Written on the wind

Canada’s IPY researchers are uncovering clues to solve long-standing weather and atmospheric mysteries, and not a moment too soon.

Weather and atmospheric conditions are defining features of the North, yet they have been stubborn to give up their secrets.

Take every Canadian’s favourite topic, the weather. In the western Arctic in particular, decreasing amounts of sea ice mean increasing wind and wave activity and battered shorelines. This trend makes life complicated for people living and working in places where erosion or melting permafrost literally threaten the foundation of settlements. Where offshore oil and gas exploration are taking place, this work becomes more challenging, as water action displaces significant amounts of ocean floor sediment. The location of shallow shipping channels and secure underwater pipeline routes can vary dramatically from one season to the next.

Canadian researchers on International Polar Year (IPY) projects are tackling this challenge by studying basic physical processes and creating sophisticated climate models. They are reviewing the history of local weather patterns and developing models for the future, testing their forecasts by matching them with recorded observations from major storms in 1982 and 1999.

Other IPY researchers are making headway in solving an ongoing mystery: two atmospheric agents – ozone and mercury – vanish every spring. Ozone is strongly associated with global warming, while mercury is a toxic heavy metal that can make its way into local marine life. Researchers are developing new tools to explore the fate of these chemicals, including oceanic buoys full of instruments that can take measurements for extended periods and an insulated monitoring outpost that can be moved around by sled.

The atmosphere, of course, is a dynamic system, and researchers are keen to understand complex climate causes and effects. For example, where are toxic chemicals that end up in the Arctic atmosphere originating? And how do gases respond to the combined effects of sea ice, water circulation and microbiological processes in the ocean? In what way is the output of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide affected by the decreasing amount of sea ice?

Slowly but surely, answers to these questions are starting to appear. From one of the most northerly research stations found at Eureka in the High Arctic to labs in southern Canada, scientists working on IPY projects are getting ever more adept at reading changes written in the wind.


This piece features a video that uncovers some of the consequences Northerners are facing due to climate change. Wildlife and hunters are shown adapting to the unpredictable weather in recent seasons. The video sends the message that Canadian scientists are hard at work to help this region prepare for the future.


On the next page:

Sea ice and currents

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Quiz :

What percentage of the Northern hemisphere's permafrost is in Canada?

About 30%
About 10%
About 60%