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International polar year

Wondering about water

The freshwater world of the Arctic, wildly unpredictable yet essential to Northern life, is under the microscope.

In the best of times, Arctic freshwater systems — lakes, rivers, wetlands, ponds, snow — are wildly unpredictable from one year to the next in terms of flooding and freeze-thaw cycles. Given that the North is expected to warm more than twice the global average, Arctic freshwater systems will be even more unpredictable in the years ahead.

How will Arctic freshwater systems be affected by climate change and the resulting loss of ice cover and the melting of permafrost? At this point it is impossible to say, given that our basic understanding of their ecology and hydrology is limited.

No surprise, then, that Arctic freshwater systems is an area of intense interest to investigators working on International Polar Year (IPY) projects. In field sites and communities across Canada’s North, researchers are measuring rain and snow fall, water quality, seasonal and annual melting, and water migration routes.

The goals are to improve the understanding of freshwater and nutrients flowing into the Arctic Ocean, develop improved models to predict freshwater and nutrient flux, and create a database of freshwater biodiversity.

As well, IPY-sponsored researchers are keen to learn more about the impacts of melting permafrost. By the mid-21st century, the area of permafrost in the northern hemisphere is expected to decline by around 20 percent to 35 percent. Degrading permafrost can create new drainage channels and, along with the earlier thawing of lakes and rivers, affect the timing and amount of fresh water migrating from land to the ocean.

Underscoring the importance of freshwater systems to Northern life, IPY-sponsored researchers have also worked in the Old Crow Flats in Yukon Territory, homeland to the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation (VGFN) and a wetland of international significance. This vast northern landscape has long been an important refuge for arctic wildlife while also supporting the traditional lifestyle of the VGFN. The community is particularly concerned about declining water levels in the region and their impact on wildlife. Using both traditional and scientific approaches, researchers are studying the possible effects of climate change on water levels. In the process, they are giving local communities greater capacity to monitor and assess Arctic freshwater ecosystems.


This piece briefly highlights The Old Crow Flats in northern Yukon, stating that it is a wetland of international significance that is undergoing pronounced and unprecedented changes.


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Trees and tundra

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Quiz :

Why is Old Crow Flats, Yukon of international significance?

Important museum
Important wetland
Important airport