• By: OLM Staff

University of Manitoba Team Takes Holistic Approach to Arctic Research

Achieving excellence and an international reputation as one of the pre-eminent centres for Arctic climate change research does not happen in a vacuum. Instead, like building blocks stacked one on top of the other, such an accomplishment is the result of hard work, collaboration and a strong and broad foundation. Over the last 20 years, the Centre for Earth Observation Science (CEOS) within the Clayton H. Riddell Faculty of Environment, Earth, and Resources at the University of Manitoba, has been building that foundation. Its team of distinguished scientists has established a body of research, knowledge and expertise in the area of climate change and climate processes which has resulted in important discoveries and garnered national and international recognition.

More recently, and as a result of the ground-breaking work conducted at CEOS, the University of Manitoba was awarded a prestigious Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) – one of only a handful in the country – to further cement its reputation as one of the most important climate change research institutions in the world.

“It’s very important that we develop a much clearer understanding of how the planet functions and what the consequences of our actions are on natural, physical and biological systems,” said Dr. David Barber, CEOS director and Canada Research Chair in Arctic System Science. “Over the course of my career, I have watched the Arctic sea ice change before my eyes. That change affects everything, even the tropical parts of our planet. This Canada Excellence Research Chair will bring [an even greater] level of expertise to Canada to investigate the fundamental underpinnings of these changes and their consequences.”

Members of this expanded team are each doing their part to unravel the mysteries of the Arctic and in the process breaking new ground in a relatively uncharted research field. CEOS senior research scientist professor Gary Stern is studying the impact of climate change on contaminant cycling, process, and ultimately biological exposure in the Arctic Ocean, lakes and rivers.

“Research suggests that in some regions of the Arctic, climate warming is having a negative effect and has resulted in observed increases in some fish and marine mammals such as beluga and ringed seals,” said Stern, who co-led, with Barber, one of the world’s largest ever climate change research expeditions: the Circumpolar Flaw Lead System Study. “Climate warming tends to make contaminants more bioavailable. This is, of course, a concern to northerners who consume fish and marine mammal tissues as part of their traditional diets. Direct toxic effects of contaminants on marine mammals themselves are difficult to measure but current findings suggest that increased exposure compounds affects from other environmental stressors, which can then together impact immune system functioning, making the animals more susceptible to disease.”

Stern hopes his research will provide policy makers and northerners with the knowledge they require to adapt to these changes in their environment. CEOS involves scientists from a variety of disciplines, which allows Arctic ecosystems to be studied as a whole.

“It’s the ideal situation because it allows for a successful collaboration with links to other programs and departments. At CEOS, we can broaden our research and make it multidisciplinary,” said Stern.

Take, for example, environment and geography professor Dr. John Hanesiak whose expertise lies in extreme weather and storms. In particular, he is investigating how diminishing sea ice affects the intensity of Arctic storms. Barber, Canada Research Chair in Arctic System Science, then uses this data to better understand how sea ice interacts with the atmosphere.

“One of the major findings,” explained Hanesiak, “is that the atmosphere controls most of the ice dynamics, so if a storm occurs around a marginal ice zone, then the ice tends to break up more and expose the ocean more to the atmosphere. More open water can then transfer more energy into the atmosphere to intensify storms in some cases. We’re studying this two-way feedback between the atmosphere and ice.” Hanesiak’s students also benefit from this collaboration, sharing knowledge, field equipment, technical aid and logistics. “It’s a good environment for them because they share the workload and work together to make the project happen,” he said.

Environmental chemistry professor Dr. Feiyue Wang agrees, noting it is important for the students at CEOS to have the opportunity to be at the centre of large scale studies that are uncovering how our changing climate affects chemical processes, specifically contaminants.

“The reason why we’re interested in chemicals in the Arctic is because 30 years ago, the Arctic was considered to many as pristine, but modern data since the 1980s are showing that the Arctic is more contaminated than other areas by certain chemicals,” he said. “We have seen high concentrations of mercury in marine mammals in the Arctic, particularly in the western Canadian Arctic. Mercury affects the nervous system of humans and can also be passed on to newborns through mothers during the development stage.”

Wang is investigating the source and pathways of the contamination and why there are high concentrations in certain areas. “Through 10 years of study, we’ve found that these high concentrations are increasingly linked to the changing environment, particularly the changing sea ice conditions, the thickness and summer coverage of which have been diminishing. Northern Peoples are being affected as they eat these contaminated mammals as part their traditional diet – human health is at stake,” he said.

Enter greenhouse gas expert Dr. Tim Papakyriakou, who examines the cycling of gases between the atmosphere and the Arctic Ocean, whether it be ice-covered or ice-free. He is interested in the exchange of trace gases that affect the climate, like carbon dioxide and dimethyl sulfide. “Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and dimethyl sulfide is a gas, that when in the atmosphere, will foster the creation of small particles, which will reflect solar radiation. One will act to warm the climate and one will, in enough quantities, act to scatter solar radiation away,” he explained. Identifying that his work is a piece in the larger puzzle at CEOS, Papakyriakou said they are discovering how the Arctic marine ecosystem is responding to change, and hopes that the resulting information will some day inform the public and policymakers about the consequences on the Arctic of a warming planet.

“Perhaps there will be some social will to affect change, to look for reduced use of fossil fuels and other energy sources for example. It is a long road and it is a remarkably new science,” said the environment and geography professor. “The Arctic is an area undergoing vast change and I think we’re all struggling to catch up because unlike the situation for many land systems (e.g. forests or grasslands), we don’t have a good understanding of what the Arctic marine system was 20 years ago, before the onset of the rapid change. What will the ramifications of all this change be?”