Canadian researchers warn of new Arctic worries

Thu Apr 3, 2008 6:48pm EDT
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By Allan Dowd

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Canada's massive Mackenzie Delta is feeling the impact of climate change faster than expected and could foretell of problems elsewhere in the Arctic, a Canadian researcher said on Thursday.

Melting ocean ice is apparently allowing larger storm surges to flood into the delta in Canada's far north, a change that could have an impact on energy development plans for the region, said Lance Lesack, who has been tracking environmental changes in the region for more than a decade.

"With receding sea ice, suddenly we're seeing bigger storm surges moving into the delta from storms that really aren't any bigger than they have been historically," said Lesack, a geographer from Simon Fraser University near Vancouver.

"The ice acts as a blanket, but when you get open water you can get really big waves and swells forming," Lesack said in an interview.

The delta, where the Mackenzie River flows into the Beaufort Sea in the Northwest Territories, covers an area about one-third the size of Switzerland and contains some 45,000 lakes. It is sparsely populated, but home to a range of wildlife and fish.

Lesack and other Canadian researchers, following up on a study they did in 1997, had expected the higher sea levels they found, but were surprised to find water levels in some lower elevation lakes had risen three times faster than predicted.

In other areas of the delta, shallow lakes at higher elevations, which require flooding due to ice jams on the north-flowing Mackenzie to replenish their water supply, are drying out because of the faster melting and reduced flooding, the researchers reported.

"The apparent changes in sea level and river ice breakup occurring in the Mackenzie represent the first case we are aware of where two global change mechanisms may be simultaneously forcing a major Arctic ecosystem in differing ways," Lesack and colleagues wrote in a recent study on the region.   Continued...