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Water Today Title November 20, 2017

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Q&A - Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR)

Q&A - Mike Gill, Senior Sience Officer at POLAR

On June 16, the Government of Canada announced that Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United States (NASA) have signed an agreement to coordinate environmental research and monitoring activities in the western Canadian Arctic. This involves ensuring close alignment of NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) with POLAR's planned science activities in this region. The ABoVE study will run for 8 to 10 years and includes the Arctic and boreal regions of western Canada and Alaska, which are changing rapidly because of a warming climate. ABoVE, which is led by NASA, aims to:
  • gain a better understanding of the vulnerability of Arctic and boreal ecosystems to environmental change
  • provide scientific knowledge to guide the development of adaptation strategies at local to international levels.
WaterToday sent email questions to POLAR' Mike Gill. His answers are below.


WaterToday - How did your organisation get involved with NASA?

Mike Gill - Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR) is a new federal agency (established June 1st, 2015) whose overall mandate is to develop and distribute knowledge on polar regions to improve economic opportunities, environmental stewardship and quality of life for Northerners and other Canadians. Polar has four science and technology priorities over the next 5 years, two of which (baseline information to prepare for northern sustainability and predicting the impacts of changing ice, permafrost and snow on shipping, infrastructure and communities) are very well aligned with the ABoVE campaign’s mission to better understand how resilient or vulnerable Arctic and boreal ecosystems are to a changing climate. Due to this close alignment and POLAR’s lead brokering role for strengthening connections between Canada and international interest in POLAR science, POLAR and NASA have teamed up to coordinate their two science campaigns.

WaterToday - Any reason why the western arctic is the focus?

Mike Gill - Originally, NASA’s ABoVE campaign was going to focus largely on Alaska but discussions between POLAR and the NASA ABoVE Science Team (which two of us are members) led to the decision to expand the geographic domain to include the western Canadian Arctic (from the Yukon across to the western shores of Hudson Bay). This area is undergoing rapid warming, involves a diversity of both boreal and arctic ecosystems and has relatively good infrastructure and capacity for carrying out science. For these reasons, this region was chosen as the focus.

WaterToday - When you discuss "on the ground" who is that? there isnt many people on the ground is there?

Mike Gill - NASA, obviously, has leading edge capabilities when it comes to satellite and airborne remote sensing. However, observing change from space or from the air requires what we call ‘ground-truthing’ (or calibration and validation). It is impossible to interpret remotely sensed data without first connecting it to ground observations. POLAR and NASA, along with other Canadian research partners (universities, territorial governments, other federal government departments, northern communities) will be working together to coordinate ground observations with the remote sensing. While it is true that there are relatively few people in the western Arctic, existing communities, and particularly Aboriginal people, provide a huge opportunity to cost-effectively observe changes on the land due to their practice of traditional lifestyles and high skill at identifying important ecological changes. We hope to, in particular, coordinate existing community-based, territorial, federal and university research and monitoring programs to extract greater value out of NASA’s remote sensing campaign. As well, NASA itself is funding US led research teams in many parts of the western Arctic who will also be collecting ground observations and POLAR’s new Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay will provide a key reference area for many aspects of the research campaign.

WaterToday - The ice roads which are vital to commerce in the north have had some of the worst years in history for closing or even not available. Does what you're up to have any bearing on these?

Mike Gill - Yes. Much of the focus of our coordinated partnership is looking at how climate change is and will impact the seasonality and quality of lake and river ice and how that will impact both ice road development as well as safe and reliable transportation for Northerners including Aboriginal harvesters who rely on consistent ice and snow conditions to access traditionally harvested species.

WaterToday - Methane release is at record breaking points and is this something being studied? there are new technologies for analysis of methane, can you talk to any of these?

Mike Gill - The coordinated research campaign will also include a focus on better understanding methane flux across the western Arctic to allow for better predictions and modelling of how methane release may change under a warming climate. This includes using an existing network of ground-based flux towers with an airborne campaign from 2017 to 2019, where NASA aircraft will be flying transects across the western Arctic to measure a number of characteristics including methane release.

WaterToday - Our charts for arctic waters are woefully out of date, will this project help that endeavour?

Mike Gill - No. The coordinated partnership focuses on terrestrial and freshwater realms. However, POLAR does have a marine mandate also and there is some consideration for working with partners to improve baseline information on navigable waters in the Arctic.

WaterToday - How much will we pay or be paid for this project? sharing data? or a hard cost?

Mike Gill - The collaboration between NASA and POLAR involves an 8 to 10 year campaign averaging roughly $8 million US dollars per year (including work in Alaska). The collaboration involves leveraging existing and planned research and monitoring in Canada making it difficult to give an accurate estimate of total expenditures in Canada. The idea is to utilize the opportunity that NASA brings and leverage our existing research investments in Canada to extract greater value and a much better understanding of how arctic ecosystems will change under a changing climate and what impacts can be expected, particularly for northern communities and infrastructure. Immense amounts of data will be generated by this campaign which will be made freely available to partners of the collaboration and will include access to a supercomputer at NASA’s Goddard Institute to help with the analysis.

WaterToday - Given that Canada has few heavy icebreakers is this project a stand-in for the current exploration that could be done if we had a fleet of ice breakers?

Mike Gill - Again, this project does not involve marine realms.

WaterToday -Will new hires (scientists, navigation specialists) be part of this effort?

Mike Gill - NASA is investing research dollars into US led teams that will be operating in both Alaska and western Canada. POLAR is also currently investing a number of research projects involving experts in both universities, governments and Aboriginal organizations to conduct research, using both science and Traditional Ecological Knowledge, to better understand the changing Arctic. POLAR is also currently staffing a number of positions in the North, many of which will be working directly on this collaboration. Training is also an important component of this campaign and we hope to use this opportunity to develop the next generation of scientists particularly focusing on building capacity within northern Canadian communities.

WaterToday -does this have anything to do with ledge mapping? thats also well behind schedule.

Mike Gill - I am not sure what you mean by ledge mapping but I assume you are talking about mapping the continental shelf? If so, then no, as before this project does not involve the marine realm.

WaterToday - Most of our viewers accept that the ice sheets are melting at record rates, what are you looking for, any predetermined questions? what do expect to find out?

Mike Gill - There are a whole host of questions that our coordinated science campaign intends to address. The primary question being:
How vulnerable or resilient are ecosystems and society to environmental change in the Arctic and boreal region of western North America?

However, there are a number of other questions to be addressed including:
  • How are environmental changes affecting critical ecosystem services – natural and cultural resources, human health, infrastructure, and climate regulation – and how are human societies responding?
  • What processes are contributing to changes in disturbance regimes and what are the impacts of these changes?
  • What are the changes in the distribution and properties of permafrost and what is controlling those changes?
  • What are the causes and consequences of changes in the amount, temporal distribution, and discharge of surface and subsurface water?
  • How are flora and fauna responding to changes in biotic and abiotic conditions, and what are the impacts on ecosystem structure and function?
  • How are the magnitudes, fates, and land-atmosphere exchanges of carbon pools responding to environmental change, and what are the biogeochemical mechanisms driving these changes?

While many of these questions sound complex, at the end of the day, we are trying to gain a better understanding of how these northern ecosystems function, how they might change under a changing climate and what that means for both northerners and the planet as a whole. In our continual discussions with northern partners, particularly our Aboriginal partners, there is an urgent need for information that can help people adapt to changes and answer fundamental questions such as: will there be caribou available to harvest? Will our community’s roads and houses need to be redesigned? Will natural disturbances, such as fire, become an increasing threat?

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