York professor hosts ‘floating’ conference of Arctic scientists

York geography Professor Kathy Young heads to the Arctic as usual this summer. Not to monitor the snowbeds in the High Arctic as she has done for almost 20 years, but to host 60 scientists on a sailing expedition up the east coast of Baffin Island.

For six days in mid-August aboard the Lyubov Orlova (right), a renovated Russian passenger ship operated by Inuit-owned Cruise North, leading Arctic hydrologists, oceanographers and climatologists from every circumpolar nation will share their latest research with each other – and with northern communities – as participants in the 17th International Northern Research Basins (NRB) Symposium & Workshop. In four packed days, they will deliver 50 papers, addressing the theme of managing hydrological uncertainty in high-latitude environments, a reference to the challenge of understanding the impact of global warming on Arctic water systems.

“It is the first time terrestrial hydrologists and oceanographers have officially come together for the purpose of sharing what they know,” says Young, the first woman to organize this biannual conference of the Northern Research Basins Working Group in 34 years. 

Kathy YoungThe idea for such an exchange arose at the NRB’s 16th conference in northern Russia two years ago. Hydrologists, who study inland water systems, were curious to know the effect of diminishing sea ice on water loss into the atmosphere and as runoff into rivers, lakes and oceans.

Left: Kathy Young

Rising temperatures and melting sea ice have brought more fog, rain, snow and extreme weather in the North. When the rain coincides with spring snowmelt, as it did in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, last year, flash floods occur, ripping through permafrost and hurling sediment into coastal waters. In polar oceans, disappearing sea ice and more open water have resulted in storm surges that blow further inland and are battering places like the Mackenzie River Delta.

A highlight of the trip will be a public meeting between scientists and residents of Pangnirtung who want to find out more about the flash flood that whacked the village last year. In minutes, it tore out two bridges, leaving half the village stranded and without power, and carved a channel through permafrost right down to the bedrock. The volume of water overwhelmed the sewage plant which overflowed and contaminated the pristine Pangnirtung Fiord, home to beluga and narwhal whales.

Right: Pangnirtung declared a state of emergency after a flash flood tore out bridges in June 2008 Photo from iglootalk.com. 

Both climate change and increased human activity in Arctic regions have made estimating water budgets, water chemistry and hydrological modelling difficult, leading to uncertainty for scientists, policy-makers, water managers and northern residents, says Young.

“Northern water systems have been poorly quantified and sparsely observed,” she says. “If we want to estimate future changes in our northern basins with more certainty, we need to keep improving our data-collection processes and modelling strategies.”

She has scheduled the delivery of 50 papers over an intense four days on a range of topics, including predicting precipitation, ocean interactions and modelling climate change. Some are very topical, and others have clear real-world applications, as papers on:

  • the need to monitor runoff from the rapidly melting Greenland Ice Sheet;
  • the economic implications of later freezing and earlier break up of ice on northern lakes;
  • and the importance of estimating runoff correctly before you design stream crossings for oil and gas lines.

There are two keynote speakers. Robie Macdonald (right), a renowned Arctic oceanographer with the federal Institute of Ocean Sciences, will talk about what happens when freshwater rivers and streams meet the polar salt sea. Larry Hinzman, an Arctic hydrologist and director of Alaska’s International Arctic Research Center, will discuss the need to understand atmospheric, terrestrial and oceanic processes and their effects on the global climate.

Young raised $150,000 in kind and in cash from government, research agencies, corporate sponsors and private family foundations for this symposium, $40,000 of which came from Environment Canada’s Water & Climate Impacts Research Centre.

With those dollars, Young has made sure scientists from every circumpolar nation – Russia, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark (Greenland), the United States and Canada – can participate.

They sail next Wednesday from Iqaluit, Nunavut, up the east coast of Baffin Island to Pangnirtung and end their journey at Kuujjuak, Nunavik, Aug. 18. Along the way, they will meet Inuit elders and regional politicians, visit Auyuittuq National Park and an abandoned whaling station at Kekerten, Nunavuk, and watch for walruses, polar bears and Arctic birds. 

Right: Walruses at Monumental Island. Photo courtesy of Cruise North.

Young has corralled veteran scientists who have spent their entire careers observing the Arctic to present at the conference, including:

  • Terry Prowse, an Arctic hydrologist at the Water & Climate Impacts Research Centre in British Columbia, who will talk about the ecological and economic implications of rapid changes when freshwater ice freezes and breaks up on northern lakes:
  • Ming-ko Woo, an Arctic hydrologist at McMaster University, who calls for more collaborative research on the mutual influences of polar seas and northern hydrology;
  • Oddbjørn Bruland, a snow hydrologist at Norway’s Statkraft Energy, one of the largest hydropower producers in Europe, who will describe ENKI, a hydrological forecasting system of snowcover and snowmelt runoff, crucial to estimating future power-generating capacity;
  • Douglas Kane, an Arctic hydrologist at Alaska’s Water & Environmental Research Center, who stresses the need to know more about runoff in ungauged northern basins before proceeding with the design of stream crossings necessary for oil and gas development;
  • and Bent Hasholt, a glaciologist at Copenhagen’s Institute of Geography & Geology, who will emphasize the need to monitor meltwater, erosion and sediment transport flowing to the sea from different parts of the fast-melting Greenland Ice Sheet.

Young is also presenting a paper suggesting that, as yet, no clear trend in long-term climatic signals can be established at Polar Bear Pass, a Bathurst Island wildlife sanctuary in the High Arctic she has been studying.

Also attending the conference as observers are two York graduate students in geography, PhD candidate Anna Abnizova (left), who helped organize the conference, and master’s candidate Jane Assini (right).


By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer