Chang­ing Grounds

Mon­i­tor­ing car­bon (and try­ing to an­tic­i­pate the fu­ture) in the Hud­son Bay Low­lands

Canadian Wildlife - - CONTENTS - By Aaron Todd

Mon­i­tor­ing car­bon (and try­ing to an­tic­i­pate the fu­ture) in the Hud­son Bay Low­lands

Our Twin Ot­ter air­craft cir­cled, de­scend­ing grad­u­ally with each pass un­til the pi­lot was able to set­tle the spongy over­sized tires onto an un­even gravel strip in On­tario’s Po­lar Bear Pro­vin­cial Park. The aban­doned run­way, which is slowly be­ing re­claimed by shrubs, is all that re­mains of a for­mer Cold War-era radar in­stal­la­tion about 1,000 kilo­me­tres north­east of Win­nipeg near the south­ern shores of Hud­son Bay.

With the pro­pel­lers stopped and se­cured, my team from the On­tario Min­istry of the En­vi­ron­ment and Cli­mate Change worked quickly to trans­fer the plane’s pay­load — the con­struc­tion gear, ma­te­ri­als and com­po­nents to build a car­bon-mon­i­tor­ing sta­tion — into heavy rope nets, which were then lifted by he­li­copter to the in­stal­la­tion site a few kilo­me­tres away. This would be our tem­po­rary base of op­er­a­tions, a rare patch of sta­ble dry ground in an oth­er­wise soggy and un­de­vel­oped land­scape, for the next two weeks. It was Septem­ber 2017, and we were there to con­struct the sec­ond of two car­bon-mon­i­tor­ing sta­tions. We built board­walks, erected so­lar pan­els and a metal tower, and set up and con­nected an ar­ray of high-tech sen­sors wired to a data-log­ging com­puter.

All the while, we had to re­main on alert for po­lar bears, which are forced ashore for sev­eral months each year when the sea ice melts on Hud­son Bay. Even though we were 30 kilo­me­tres in­land, bears had been spot­ted in the area, and we were mind­ful of a po­ten­tial en­counter. Thank­fully, our only vis­i­tors were cu­ri­ous cari­bou.

This car­bon-mon­i­tor­ing sta­tion in Po­lar Bear Pro­vin­cial Park, along with a nearby sta­tion we had erected ex­actly one year ear­lier, is now beam­ing data by satel­lite to Min­istry of the En­vi­ron­ment and Cli­mate Change of­fices 1,300 kilo­me­tres to the south in Toronto. To­gether, they are the new­est in the prov­ince of On­tario’s net­work of five sta­tions stretch­ing south to north along a cli­mate and per­mafrost gra­di­ent from Moosonee to Peawanuck. The sta­tions mea­sure the ex­change of green­house gases (car­bon diox­ide and meth­ane) between the land and the at­mos­phere in the Hud­son Bay Low­lands, a glob­ally sig­nif­i­cant car­bon store.

The Hud­son Bay Low­lands sur­round the western side of Hud­son Bay and James Bay, span­ning across north­ern On­tario and ex­tend­ing into Man­i­toba and Que­bec. With an area of 325,000 square kilo­me­tres, these low­lands cover roughly 3.5 per cent of the sur­face area of Canada. On­tario’s Far North Sci­ence Ad­vi­sory Panel has de­scribed the re­gion as “one of the world’s largest, most in­tact eco­log­i­cal sys­tems.” The re­gion is a bio­di­ver­sity stronghold, home to mam­mals such as cari­bou, Canada lynx, martens, grey wolves, wolver­ines and the south­ern­most pop­u­la­tion of po­lar bears in the world. The re­gion is also of global im­por­tance for mi­gra­tory birds. It is a unique and spe­cial place.

The sec­ond largest peat­land in the world cov­ers the flat and poorly drained land­scape of the Low­lands, and be­cause of the cool­ing in­flu­ence of Hud­son Bay and James Bay and the per­sis­tence of sea ice, the cli­mate is cold for its lat­i­tude. The re­gion con­tains the south­ern­most ex­tent of non-alpine per­mafrost in North Amer­ica. These cold and wet con­di­tions slow soil de­com­po­si­tion, al­low­ing or­ganic mat­ter to ac­cu­mu­late over thou­sands of years. They have cre­ated a mas­sive store of car­bon.

Over the past few decades, how­ever, the re­gion has ex­pe­ri­enced a warm­ing trend, the im­pli­ca­tions of which are un­cer­tain. Cer­tainly, more change is coming. Cli­mate mod­els pre­dict con­sid­er­ably shorter ice-cover sea­sons on Hud­son Bay and James Bay lead­ing to warmer and longer sum­mers and warmer and shorter win­ters. Warm­ing could re­sult in the dry­ing of the peat­lands, melt­ing of the per­mafrost and re­lease of car­bon to the at­mos­phere, cre­at­ing a pos­i­tive feed­back loop with po­ten­tial im­pli­ca­tions for the global cli­mate. Dry­ing is also likely to in­crease wild­fires, burn­ing of peat and loss of car­bon to the at­mos­phere.

Sam Hunter, an en­vi­ron­men­tal stew­ard with the Mushkegowuk Coun­cil, has been keep­ing watch on a weather sta­tion in­stalled on a per­mafrost palsa (an oval-shaped raised mound of frozen peat) near his home in Peawanuck. The sta­tion has been slowly keel­ing over as its frozen foun­da­tion melts and slumps. “Most peo­ple think that po­lar bears are the in­di­ca­tors of cli­mate change,” Hunter says. “For me, it’s the pal­sas.”

Hunter joined my team in in­stalling our mon­i­tor­ing sta­tions in Po­lar Bear Pro­vin­cial Park. He ex­plained to me how the melt­ing of per­mafrost is mak­ing it more chal­leng­ing to move around on the land­scape. He also showed me how the fra­grant leaves and stems of the dwarf Labrador-tea plant, found only on the per­mafrost pal­sas, can be used to brew a bet­ter tea than the taller va­ri­ety of the plant.

Our two sta­tions in the park are only one kilo­me­tre apart, but they are mon­i­tor­ing very dif­fer­ent land­scapes. The first is in­stalled on a peat plateau, over in­tact per­mafrost that re­mains frozen at 30-40 cen­time­tres be­low the sur­face in the heat of sum­mer. The sec­ond is in an area where pal­sas have melted and col­lapsed, cre­at­ing a patch­work of shal­low oval-shaped ponds. Find­ings from these two mon­i­tor­ing sta­tions will pro­vide in­sights into what hap­pens to the car­bon that is stored in frozen peat when per­mafrost melts, help­ing to fill a key gap in the sci­ence of north­ern peat­lands.

“Most peo­ple think that po­lar bears are the in­di­ca­tors of cli­mate change. It’s the pal­sas”

Elyn Humphreys, a peat­lands re­searcher at Carleton Univer­sity in Ot­tawa, has an­a­lyzed the data col­lected since 2010 at On­tario’s two car­bon mon­i­tor­ing sta­tions near the Vic­tor di­a­mond mine, west of At­tawapiskat, and our third sta­tion west of Moosonee. Humphreys’ cal­cu­la­tions re­veal a del­i­cate bal­ance between car­bon up­take and loss, a bal­ance that is sen­si­tive to changes in tem­per­a­ture and other weather con­di­tions. Her find­ings show that the mon­i­tored peat­lands con­tinue to ac­cu­mu­late car­bon de­spite re­cent warm­ing trends, tak­ing up between 49 and 82 grams of car­bon per square me­tre each year from the at­mos­phere.

North­ern peat­lands are im­por­tant to the global cli­mate sys­tem not only be­cause they are mas­sive car­bon stores but also be­cause when warm­ing they re­lease meth­ane into the at­mos­phere. Meth­ane is a much more po­tent green­house gas than car­bon diox­ide. Humphreys’ cal­cu­la­tions show that the amount of meth­ane re­leased by the mon­i­tored peat­lands cur­rently is less than 10 per cent of the amount of car­bon taken up as car­bon diox­ide. These find­ings are es­pe­cially im­por­tant be­cause ecosys­tem-scale mea­sure­ments of meth­ane emis­sions from north­ern peat­lands are lack­ing world­wide. Re­sults from On­tario’s car­bon mon­i­tor­ing sta­tions are shared on the on­line Amer­i­flux net­work with re­searchers around the world.

The Omushkegowuk peo­ple have called the Hud­son Bay Low­lands home for thou­sands of years. Com­pris­ing sev­eral Cree First Na­tions, their com­mu­ni­ties are re­mote, linked only by air, wa­ter and win­ter roads. They rely on the land for their food, medicine, liveli­hoods and cul­ture.

In Jan­uary 2018, the Mushkegowuk Coun­cil hosted a cli­mate sum­mit in Tim­mins, Ont., where El­ders, youth, com­mu­nity mem­bers and en­vi­ron­men­tal man­agers and sci­en­tists met to share knowl­edge and iden­tify gaps in our un­der­stand­ing of how to pro­tect the tra­di­tional lands and the fu­ture well-be­ing of the Omushkegowuk peo­ple. My col­league Chris Char­ron, an air mon­i­tor­ing man­ager at the On­tario Min­istry of the En­vi­ron­ment and Cli­mate Change, at­tended. “It was a fas­ci­nat­ing and some­what sober­ing two days,” he told me. “For those of us who live in the south, it moved the con­ver­sa­tion from one that has been pri­mar­ily aca­demic in na­ture, to one that is full of real-world con­se­quences. El­ders from sev­eral dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties spoke of the changes they are wit­ness­ing to the land, to the wa­ter and to wildlife. Many felt that the Earth was sick.”

The cli­mate sum­mit re­in­forced the im­por­tance of our ef­forts to bet­ter un­der­stand the role of the Hud­son Bay Low­lands in the global cli­mate sys­tem and how cli­mate change could af­fect these glob­ally sig­nif­i­cant peat­lands. It also high­lighted the fact that cli­mate change is a real and present con­cern and that strate­gies to adapt to a chang­ing world are needed, par­tic­u­larly in the Hud­son Bay Low­lands where the ef­fects of cli­mate change are al­ready be­ing felt.

Thanks to the car­bon-mon­i­tor­ing sta­tions erected, and the work of re­searchers and sci­en­tists through­out the North along with com­mit­ted lo­cal res­i­dents, we are get­ting a clearer pic­ture of the kinds of changes oc­cur­ring and what we can do in the coming years to ad­dress them.1

Aaron Todd works in the mon­i­tor­ing and re­port­ing branch of the On­tario Min­istry of the En­vi­ron­ment and Cli­mate Change


CAR­BON STOR­AGE These low­lands, cov­er­ing 3.5 per cent of Canada, are con­sid­ered by ex­perts to be “one of the world‘s largest, most in­tact eco­log­i­cal sys­tems”

LAND­SCAPE RE­SHAPED View of an area where per­mafrost has melted and palsa mounds have col­lapsed, cre­at­ing a patch­work of shal­low ponds

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