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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.
The rate of change seems to have risen significantly, starting in the 1990s, and Lesack said the increase in storm surges is probably also happening in other Arctic river deltas, although research data is limited.
The study's results were originally published in December in the journal of the American Geophysical Union but not widely distributed outside of academic circles until this week.
The researchers said greater than expected storm surges and coastal flooding should be a concern for companies looking at drilling in the energy-rich Mackenzie Delta and areas of the Beaufort Sea.
A consortium of energy companies led by Imperial Oil Ltd aims to develop the C$16.2 billion ($16.2 billion) Mackenzie gas project, which would include a pipeline through the Northwest Territories to southern markets.
The pipeline would ship natural gas from three major fields in the delta that were discovered in the 1970s -- Taglu, Niglintgak and Parsons Lake. Reserves are pegged at 6 trillion cubic feet of gas.
The project has been hampered by regulatory delays and surging costs.
Additional reporting by Jeffrey Jones, editing by Rob Wilson