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Deh Cho muskeg at centre of climate change study
Researchers examine rapidly-changing boreal peatlands on permafrost near Checkpoint

Roxanna Thompson
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, September 5, 2013

An area of muskeg located in the Deh Cho is attracting more and more researchers who are examining the changes that are taking place in the ecosystem and what they could mean for the future of the area.

NNSL photo/graphic

During a tour of the Scotty Creek research site, Bill Quinton, second from right, and Jennifer Baltzer explain one of the studies being conducted to David Livingstone, left, the chair of the science committee for the partnership between the territorial government and Wilfred Laurier University, and Michael Miltenberger, right, the territorial minister of Environment and Natural Resources. - Roxanna Thompson/NNSL photo

Bill Quinton, an associate professor with the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., has been conducting research at Scotty Creek since about 1995. Scotty Creek is an approximately 150-square-kilometre catchment basin that empties into the Liard River.

In 1999, a seasonal presence was established at the site, which is located about 50 kilometres south of Fort Simpson near Checkpoint. Since then, researchers have been staying at the site annually, from mid-March to late August or early September.

The site was used almost exclusively for hydrology research until 2012. It became apparent, however, that an interdisciplinary approach was necessary, Quinton said during a tour of the site on Aug. 28.

The overall question directing the research being conducted at Scotty Creek is how climate warming and associated landscape changes, as well as human-created disturbances, are altering the ecosystem function of boreal peatlands on discontinuous permafrost.

"It's a very rapidly-changing place," said Jennifer Baltzer, an associate professor with the Department of Biology at Wilfred Laurier University.

The permafrost is thawing and, as it does, the boreal forest is being converted into bogs. The change has the potential to alter the nature of water cycling in the ecosystem, as well as the volume and timing of runoff from the drainage basin.

Researchers are also looking at the effects of the ecosystem changes on carbon storage, water storage and forest productivity. The changes taking place at Scotty Creek are representative of what is happening in areas of discontinuous permafrost in other places including Alaska, Manitoba and Quebec.

"It's verily widespread change," said Baltzer.

Scotty Creek is attracting more researchers, in part because of the aspects that make it unique. Quinton has amassed 14-years-worth of baseline data from Scotty Creek.

There aren't many research sites, especially in Northern Canada, that have that many years of data, said Baltzer. It's one of the few well-instrumented sites on discontinuous permafrost.

This summer, the population at the research site's camp on Goose Lake peaked at 20. Between 30 to 40 people spent time at the camp throughout the research season.

Baltzer began coming to the site in 2011. As an ecologist, she is examining how the community of plants is changing as transformations take place in the peatland. The changes can include the type of plants that are found, how they are growing, how much carbon they are storing and how much water they are using.

"We're working at the same questions from different angles," she said.

Michael Miltenberger, the territorial minister of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, was among the people who toured the site on Aug. 28.

"I think they're doing a significant amount of critical research," he said, one day after the tour.

The data that has been collected there since 1999 relating to water and permafrost is like gold to researchers and accounts for one of the reasons increasing numbers of researchers want to go there, said Miltenberger.

One of the studies at the site Miltenberger said caught his attention is examining the impact of cutlines on areas of discontinuous permafrost. Heavy equipment used on cutlines compacts the ground surface, which allows water to accumulate in the created depressions. When the forest is removed, more sunlight can hit the area. The combination of the two factors leads to permafrost melting under cutlines and seismic lines.

This summer, thermosyphons were installed at the research site on a cutline made in 1985 to see if they can lead to the regrowth of the permafrost. It's clear cutlines have an effect on wildlife, but this is a different type of effect that hasn't been seriously considered before, Miltenberger said. The results of the research will show if there are other steps that can be taken to minimize the effects of cutlines, he said.

Having long-term research centres such as Scotty Creek in the NWT is good news for Northerners, said Miltenberger.

"It's critical for us to understand what is happening to the environment," he said.

The research taking place at Scotty Creek is part of the Canadian Aquatic Laboratories for Interdisciplinary Boreal Ecosystem Research (CALIBER) program the territorial government and Wilfred Laurier University entered into in 2010. The territorial government is contributing $2 million over five years to the $6.3-million program.

CALIBER was designed to develop leading-edge scientific studies to ensure the sustainability of Northern ecosystems.

"It's been a good investment, it's been a good partnership," said Miltenberger.

Through the partnership, Miltenberger said he hopes to expand research, such as that being done at Scotty Creek, up the Mackenzie Valley.

Edward Cholo, a community monitor for Liidlii Kue First Nation through the Aboriginal Aquatic Research and Oceans Management program was also on the tour.

Cholo, who used to have a trapline through the Scotty Creek area, said it's good researchers are looking at the rate permafrost is melting.

On his current trapline, Cholo said he's seen permafrost plateaus melt leaving behind trees in a watery depression.

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