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Climate change at the Arctic's edge

A ticking circumpolar time bomb is set to release more greenhouse gases than everything humanity has put into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution: what happens if permafrost loses its permanence? A field report from the frontlines.
A ticking circumpolar time bomb is set to release more greenhouse gases than everything humanity has put into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution: what happens if permafrost loses its permanence? A field report from the frontlines.

Ah, climate change. Like some annoying celebrity we can't stop hearing about, every other day brings news of spiking temperatures, accelerated ice-cap melting, and extreme weather events — graphs running so far off the chart that the chart needs to be expanded. All this amidst our own country's ignominious ranking as worst performer of the world's developed countries on greenhouse gas reductions. Despite its demonstrably negative environmental, atmospheric, cultural, social and economic impacts, the Alberta tar sands, solely for reasons of corporate profit, expands at an almost exponential rate, pumping untold megatons of CO2 into an already thickened atmosphere, while governments blithely encourage super-economies like China to buy as much of the sticky output as possible and burn it while they can.

These are the facts, and they offer a scathing indictment. To be fair, however, Canada isn't alone in such recklessness, and it's against such a global backdrop that the current warming trend will be neither staid nor reversed — let alone addressed in our lifetimes. We are on an inexorable path to widespread drought, an ice-free Arctic and rising oceans — the latter confirmed this May when scientists reported that the breakup of the 2.2 million km3 western Antarctic ice sheet has begun and is now irreversible.

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PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - Permafrost researcher Peter Kershaw crosses the tundra near Churchill.

Could it get any worse on the climate change front?

Of course — but few are aware of the most likely scenario under which things might truly unravel: the sudden release of gigatons of powerful greenhouse gasses due to rapid loss of sub-polar permafrost. It may not be as visible or as sexy as a fracturing ice sheet, but the process of millions of square kilometres of previously frozen muskeg becoming dangerously squishy is likewise well underway. And, as many in the field maintain, now equally irreversible.

A few thousand studies in respected, peer-reviewed journals agree on this much: average global temperature increased 0.85C between 1880 and 2012; 0.6C in the past three decades alone. Concurrently, polar ice melts, average sea level rises, and snow cover, which normally reflects sunlight back into the atmosphere recedes, creating a positive-feedback loop of melting and warming and increasingly extreme weather. Related effects include precipitous global declines in the thickness and extent of glaciers (this week a U.S. study cited B.C.'s 17,000 glaciers as receding "at an alarming rate"), and end-date snow cover in Canada's North averaging three weeks earlier than in 1950 (no surprise, given that the Arctic has warmed a full 3.0C in 30 years). The most sensitive barometer of change, however, is the extent of Arctic sea ice.

Northern hemisphere sea-ice shrinkage has outpaced all models: the levels predicted for 2025 were achieved in 2007, and 2012 beat that record by half (ice cover that year was the lowest in two decades). In fact, the total volume of Arctic ice has diminished by almost half since 2004 — and not simply due to warm summers. Milder winters ensure that the ice, which does form, is less substantive: average thickness of sea ice globally has decreased 30 to 50 per cent. And though summer 2013 in the Arctic proved cold by recent standards, spring breakup began 57 days earlier than average.

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PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - Volunteers plot the advancing treeline along transects on the tundra.

"Models predict a seasonally ice-free Arctic between 2050 and 2100. But we're on a trajectory to see this within a decade or two," notes David Barber, Canada Research Chair in Arctic System Science at the University of Manitoba. "Observations show a much more rapid response to atmospheric build-up of CO2 than expected. This should be a wake-up call to the public and policymakers."

It should be. Except enough folks have shoved their heads in the sand on the issue of climate change that it's genuinely crowded down there. Some are ostriches overwhelmed at the prospects, others flat-out deniers. Getting through that sand filter requires both diligence and knowledge, which is why many who accept the facts of climate change also want to understand the science behind them in order to better engage in effective discussion. Verifying the tsunami of information (and misinformation) available online or in print is daunting, so the surest way to self-educate on any aspect of climate change is to join researchers on the ground.

Loss of permafrost is perhaps the least discussed, but most pernicious, effect of a warming climate — one that will alter the entire biosphere. To understand the phenomenon, Dr. Peter Kershaw of the University of Alberta has monitored ecosystem responses to permafrost loss in the Hudson Bay Lowlands around Churchill, Manitoba, for over 15 years. Second in a string of principal investigators in a 35-year study, Kershaw quantifies changes in both the declining status of permafrost and the corresponding pole-ward migration of treeline. This dual research strategy involves year-round, labour-intensive collection of large data sets in relatively small windows of time. The significant people-power required is delivered in the form of vacation-volunteer teams marshalled by Massachusetts-based Earthwatch Expeditions ( and brokered through Vancouver's Voluntourism is a growing travel sector, and though flagship projects more often involve community work, archaeology, or charismatic megafauna (pandas, dolphins, etc.), climate-change studies are growing in popularity. A gig in Churchill offers not only a tempting backdrop of bobbing belugas and prowling polar bears, but also a chance for participants both to see that studies informing the news are rigorous and exacting, and to learn how to talk about it.

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PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - The trees are so small you need a magnifying glass to measure them.

"Kershaw's research shows how global warming is beginning to unravel the planet's natural systems for storing carbon," says Roger Mitchell, chief scientist at Earthwatch Europe. "If this system is further disrupted there will be huge consequences for the entire planet."

I'd call that climate-change catnip for the curious. Enough for me that in June 2012, in ominously warm weather (20C) for such latitudes, I joined Kershaw and an Earthwatch squadron in Churchill. The diverse group included veteran and neophyte voluntourists comprising students, college instructors, an economics professor, a journal editor, a retired farmer, and a corporate sustainability manager, each motivated to wade in where ostriches, deniers — and governments — fear to tread.

Permafrost — whether centimetres or kilometres deep — covers some 39,000,000 km2, or 24 per cent of Earth's total land surface, with revealing geopolitical distribution: 50 per cent each of the landmasses of Russia and Canada; 22 per cent of China; 82 per cent of Alaska (and thus 15 per cent of U.S. landmass). Some 88 per cent of circumpolar peatlands that formed after the last de-glaciation (~10,000 ybp; Hudson Bay Lowlands being the largest) are sequestered in this permafrost. It's difficult to comprehend the staggering relevance when you look at the numbers: the carbon trapped in permafrost represents 50 per cent of the entire global carbon pool — an unfathomable amount almost double that already in the atmosphere. How did this happen?

In most ecosystems, decay or fire removes the remains of dead plants as fast as they appear. In muskeg, however, as much as 70 per cent of the solar radiation absorbed and used for photosynthesis by the plants is conserved in peat—much of which has remained frozen and inert since the last Ice Age. While slow release of greenhouse gases from the thawing and subsequent decomposition of this Pleistocene mother lode is normal, potential rapid release underway is nothing short of a ticking time bomb.

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PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - How small is a 3-year-old tree? That small.

To better visualize the expanse on which this is occurring, I travelled to Churchill by rail (most participants typically fly). In Winnipeg I checked into the Fort Garry Hotel because it was close to the train station and had a famous Sunday brunch. I'd been advised to eat as much as possible prior to boarding because food on the train was abysmal: I did and it was. My sleeper compartment was wonderfully engineered with a self-contained bathroom and Murphy-style bed, perfect for the two days of rain and drear that put the Prairies and boreal forest behind. The final morning, however, found us crawling under bright sun over a landscape reduced to a monotonous leitmotif of flat expanses and tree clumps. The book I was reading, E.C. Pielou's After the Ice Age, noted that the only trees which grew in muskeg were black spruce and tamarack. Out the window I saw only black spruce and tamarack. Mystery solved.

There was more. I saw why these were often referred to as "drunken forests"— anemic trunks leaned in every direction by the up-thrust of frozen soil. The interplay of substrate, climate, water and ice created a piebald landscape, where patches of trees appeared willy-nilly. In typical fractal fashion, however, the pattern was repeated up close by the patches of moss and hummocky shrubs the trees grew in and around. Such patterned ground is a sign of extreme cold acting on an environment: repeated freezing and thawing of surface soil sorts the particles into irregular raised polygons outlined by shallow, rock-filled ditches.

I share this information with a fellow passenger I've had a few beers with, but he's already aware. Joseph Corderoy, 76, a retired British dairy farmer heading up for his third tour with Kershaw, always takes the train; for both reasons he considers himself "a bit potty." In 2000, on a trip across Canada he'd noticed you could reach Churchill by train and it sparked his imagination. A couple years later he saw a piece in the London Telegraph about an Earthwatch trip to Churchill; the work sounded like something he could do so he signed on. His last two trips were in October, the beginning of polar-bear season; he'd seen seven, but it was really about the enchantment of the Arctic and what he was learning. "It's amazing how drastically (the loss) is happening. I now feel I can give people who ask solid reasons why permafrost is disappearing and what the effect will be on wildlife and ourselves as a result."

With the rail bed soft this time of year (and getting softer with the loss of permafrost), high speeds can lead to derailment and so this part of the journey took all day. At times there appeared an older, parallel rail bed, abandoned and unmaintained, resembling a low-level roller coaster, dipping or arching depending on whether the ground beneath had subsided or risen. In some places ties were suspended in the air over water that ran underneath, in other places the line was completely submerged, testament to the dynamic nature of the freeze-thaw "active layer" sitting on the permafrost—a layer that was deepening every year. At one point the train slowed to the speed of Zen, as if it were trying to creep up on something. That something was Churchill.

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As we approached, a mirage appeared on the horizon—a thin line of trees standing in water—disappearing when we veered left to follow the Churchill River's massive tidal flats into town. It was preternaturally warm and had been for days, yet ice (likely responsible for the mirage) remained on Hudson Bay. That meant polar bears that come ashore here in the summer were still out on the ice. It also meant that beluga tours—some 70,000 of the whales inhabit the western part of the bay—couldn't really fire up yet. These major wildlife-viewing opportunities are much of the reason for Churchill's continued existence. Between decline of the fur trade and the rise of western agricultural success that led to the building of a grain port in the early 1900s and, later, research stations aimed at everything from Arctic ecology to radar to rocketry, Churchill had phased in and out of obsolescence on several occasions.

Ground zero for Kershaw's research, the Churchill Northern Studies Centre is a state-of-the-art, 27,000 square-foot building adorning the tundra about 10 kilometres east of town, close to where the infamous tundra-buggy bear tours operate. Constructed beside a warren of corrugated metal military buildings, its solar-heating and recycled water sets new environmental standards for a research facility: a Cadillac among field centres. By dinnertime everyone had arrived and we had our first briefing. The faces reflected a mixture of eager, keen, tentative and fearful (I'd certainly worried when the train had slowed to the speed of, say, a walking human, and massive clouds of mosquitoes swarmed the windows hoping for a meal). Most of our work would involve kneeling on the tundra, often with a magnifying glass, to find and age tree seedlings, as well as measure the growth of previously marked trees by counting the branching points. The long, insect-plagued days would deliver plenty in the way of information — both on the ground and in nightly discussions and talks.

Kershaw is a biogeographer and periglacial geomorphologist specializing in the impacts of anthropogenic disturbance (including climate change) on tundra and forest ecosystems. His first hour-long presentation — filled with graphs and numbers and before-and-after photos from around the world — offered a jeremiad of scientific fact, from spiking temperatures to shrinking glaciers, to lower and thinner and shorter snow cover everywhere in the northern hemisphere, to the anomalous events of the current interglacial period compared to the well-documented pattern of these cycles over the past half-million years. None of this was particularly news, save for the magnitude shown by the data, all of which pointed to rapid, widespread, unidirectional climate change: it was getting warmer, and fast. Too fast for most ecosystems and the meta-chemical and atmospheric cycles of the Earth to adapt, with inevitable impacts on the silly anthropoids who'd nevertheless built cultures, infrastructures, agricultures and industrial economies reliant on an assumption of climate stasis, and — most oddly given that said stasis has proven to be critically destabilized — insistence on the same supply of non-renewable resources that caused it. Oh, and we also learned about the status of the world's permafrost.

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PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - The view from Churchill seaward into Hudson Bay. Stranded ice floes during low tide ; sea ice at these latitudes may soon become a thing of the past.

The steady pole-ward migration of treeline is a global phenomenon. In areas of discontinuous permafrost (e.g., mountain ranges in the Northwest Territories), loss of landforms like palsas (ice-cored peat mounds) has been over one per cent each year since 1944. Thawing peat releases both CO2 (carbon dioxide) and CH4 (methane) the gases contributing most to the Greenhouse Effect that characterizes the Anthropocene (as some define the current human-influenced epoch). Areas of more continuous permafrost like Churchill are also rapidly warming and thawing, releasing CO2 and, with ~23 times the greenhouse potency of the former, enormous amounts of CH4, which contributes a whopping 25 per cent to the overall warming effect.

Days began with an early meeting before breakfast to lay out the research objectives, and by 8:30 a.m. we'd be in a van heading to a study site, typically an area of "tree islands" — clumps of tamarack and spruce of various ages spotting the tundra as the very vanguard of treeline. Here we would comb the spongy ground for seedlings that often weren't as tall as the moss itself, or count annulations on sprigs no longer than a finger. In this harsh environment a 10-cm tree can be eight or more years old; big ones — waist high or more — anywhere from 50 to hundreds of years in age. Different days saw different tree islands, some were close to ponds or lakeshores, others to the ocean. Weather oscillated between cold and windy (yay — no bugs!) and hot and hazy (head-net time). The whole while we were under close guard by a shotgun-toting sentry because we were in "the zone" where Polar bears might come ashore to frolic.

Beyond data collection, there were critters to watch: Arctic hare, hawks, ptarmigan, and myriad waterfowl. We visited Ramsey Lake, which featured a shoreline of active-layer mounds pushed up by ice, and polygonal bottom patterns formed by cryoturbation (ice sorting). Nearby we examined an aggrading permafrost Polygonal Peat Plateau (nice alliteration — basically lake sediments hoisted into the air by permafrost) where we got up close and personal with ice wedges (not a Dairy Queen menu item, but real veins of solid ice running through the peat or sediments). People couldn't stop touching these, perhaps because they are the very kinds of phenomena disappearing.

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PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - The view from Churchill inland to taiga and boreal forest.

Working and observing was aided by the hands-on involvement and interaction of participants, who proved lighthearted in the face of daily tedium — or at least experienced in-group learning. For example, Lisa Silliman-French, a 48-year-old college instructor from Texas, was on her fifth Earthwatch trip. She'd started with leatherback sea turtles in Trinidad and subsequently voyaged to Central America and Africa on endangered animal projects. "I love giving my time to those kind of things," she'd shared one night. "It connects you; opens your mind but narrows your focus — you know? Doing something keeps you from getting too frustrated, where you could drive yourself insane and not make a difference."

Her first trip had been alone, but she'd gone on Earthwatch trips with friends, relatives, even people met on previous ones. Churchill offered the possibility of seeing polar bears, true, but mostly she'd wanted to get far enough north to see an environment truly impacted by climate change. "I can't understand people who won't open a door to the idea," she tells me. "It's like they're on a narrow path with no lights. I'm hoping to open the door a crack for, like, 50 people in my life and pass it on. Look at Kaylee—I met her in an airport on my way home from an Earthwatch trip; she asked what we were doing and when I told her, she lit right up."

Kaylee Spacizek, Environmental Sustainability Manager for Pepsi Co.'s global operations based in Houston, was indeed kneeling with us on the tundra swatting mosquitoes. "I'm trained as a chemical engineer," she says. "When I started (at Pepsi) I had zero environmental knowledge, but seeing An Inconvenient Truth changed my life. Since then it has been one big revelation after another. But it's difficult to converse with co-workers about climate change, and that's a large part of why I'm here."

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PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - Ice wedges result in a polygonal pattern on the landscape.

Permafrost structures are disappearing at an unprecedented rate and the treeline is creeping north around the globe. But that's not all: Alaska's North Slope is crumbling into the sea as permafrost thaws, and recent observations in Siberia show increased rates of methane release from the Arctic seabed. Land-based permafrost in Siberia is also releasing large amounts of methane, estimated at 3.8 million tons per year — significantly above previous estimates. Taken together, conclusions are stark: Sustained thawing of northern permafrost peatlands is exposing massive amounts of organic carbon to decomposition, leading to positive feedbacks in which increased greenhouse gasses rapidly amplify warming at higher latitudes with potentially catastrophic consequences.

No one knows where the tipping point resides, but as seen in the far-exceeded models for sea-ice cover and other effects, it may come sooner than we can predict — far sooner than even the wide-eyed group that gathered in Churchill to learn about it firsthand could imagine. On our final evening, Kershaw offered an overview of how what we'd accomplished fit with both his overall research and the bigger questions. He displayed the data collected during nine days in the field, and though we couldn't say what it meant, the sheer amount was impressive. But could it translate to action?

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PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - Methane and carbon dioxide ahoy! Heat shimmers rise from the tundra on a hot day in Churchill.

"My big hope is always that a group goes away with the feeling that they've made a contribution," says Kershaw, who has hosted dozens of such synods.

Indeed, we each now counted ourselves ambassadors of awareness.

Furthermore, the group had transformed from strangers to people who could work, have fun and learn together despite disparate sensibilities, ages, and backgrounds. The reasons too easily found for not getting along with someone elsewhere are routed in such situations by the camaraderie of understanding and revelation.

Maybe the real lessons for climate change science lie in the precepts of voluntourism, pointing to what might be accomplished if such hands-on education and cooperation —perhaps government-backed — were the norm rather than the exception.

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PHOTO FROM SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - Permafrost can range from centimetres to kilometres below the active soil layer.