Summer flights will study effect of environmental change

Look up, look way up: NASA is coming to town.

An estimated 11 aircraft will fly through Yellowknife from May until August as part of NASA’s Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), a field campaign studying the impacts of environmental change on Arctic and Boreal ecosystems.

“I’m pretty sure that this is the largest single land deployment of aircraft in earth science that NASA’s ever done,” said Peter Griffith, chief support scientist with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre.

Over the course of the summer, aircraft will scour the area with a variety of equipment to test the impact of environmental change.

“We’re trying to understand how climate change is impacting both the vulnerability and resiliency of ecosystems and social systems in the northwestern part of North America,” said Dr. Charles ‘Chip’ Miller, deputy science lead with ABoVE.

The NASA flights will give a fuller picture, including aerial mapping of a larger area, than would be possible from on-the-ground sampling sites.

Of particular interest will be the amount of CO2 and methane in the air, especially measuring how things are changing as permafrost thaws.

“It matters on local, regional and global scales,” said Griffith. “You folks know why it matters locally, right, because your roads and houses are built on it. And on a global scale it matters because CO2 and methane are heat trapping gases, they’re greenhouse gases, and the thaw … is warming things up here.”

He added that extra CO2 and methane trap more heat, speeding up global warming, and scientists need to understand how fast the changes are happening.

According to research from the Northwest Territories Geological Survey, permafrost is in trouble in the region. About 134,679 square kilometres – an area larger than Greece – is undergoing permafrost decay and collapse.

“I mean the next time you drive down the road and instead of being flat and straight it’s kind of undulating like a roller coaster, think of the permafrost starting to fail,” said Miller.

Miller said his team will be working with Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada to look at some of the old mine sites during the survey.

He estimates since the beginning of the industrial revolution in around 1850, there have been around 350 billion metric tonnes of carbon put into the atmosphere, thanks to fossil-fuel combustion. In the first three metres of permafrost alone, there are still around 1,100 billion metric tonnes of carbon.

“If even say 10 per cent of that, or 20 per cent of that actually does get cycled back, you’re looking at a new impact on the atmosphere and greenhouse gases that is comparable to the size of the impact that human activities from the industrial revolution,” he said. “And we don’t know when this carbon is going to be mobilized, we don’t know how much of it’s going to be mobilized, we don’t know if it comes out as carbon dioxide or if it comes out as methane, which would add another factor of 30 to the potential impact in terms of greenhouse gas warming.”

Miller said the project is also looking at changes that result from human activity, such as construction of the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway, which is scheduled to be finished in November.

“Think of it this way – your skin, your body is pretty robust against things invading from the outside. But if you get a scratch, then it’s a lot easier for germs etc to get in and to start spreading,” said Miller. “If you put a fracture or a break in the permafrost, then you start weakening it all around and this local degradation can spread.”

Aircraft will begin taking off from Yellowknife this month.