Scientists gathering in Winnipeg to focus on 'complex' changing Arctic climate

The largest single gathering of scientists focused on the rapidly changing Arctic gets underway in Winnipeg on Monday.

ArcticNet 2016 is the largest single gathering of scientists focused on the north

Scientists gathering in Winnipeg will look at how climate change and hydroelectric projects are impacting the Arctic. (Martin Harvey/WWF)

The largest single gathering of scientists focused on the rapidly changing Arctic gets underway in Winnipeg on Monday.

ArcticNet 2016 will see 800 scientists from across the country gather at the RBC Convention Centre to present research on a wide array of subjects impacting the health of the biology and the physical systems of the Arctic.

"That covers all the biology from the very smallest organisms — viruses, bacteria right up to algae and plankton — right up the food chain to whales and polar bears," said David Barber, the Canada Research Chair in Arctic system science at the University of Manitoba.

"And then in the physical system we look at everything from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the atmosphere and how those things are interconnected."

Barber said the Arctic is changing incredibly quickly, largely driven by the changes in the ice cover.

"We have about a third more open-water season now than we used to have. That's also affecting the ice in the winter time," Barber said, adding it impacts all parts of the food chain.

"The ice is much thinner and much more mobile than it used to be."

While there have been a lot of conversations around the impact thin ice has had on polar bears, who have to stay on land much longer than they used to, there are a lot of other issues it has contributed to, Barber said. There are invasive species coming into Hudson Bay changing the normal Arctic ecosystem into something that looks more like a North Atlantic ecosystem. Killer whales are penetrating much further into the Arctic, including much further into the bay, and are eating more marine animals.

Barber said the importance of Arctic health isn't just in the north.

"You can imagine if you have an ice cover on the bay you get one sort of climate response; if you have no ice cover you get a much different climate response," Barber said.

"We are finding that this extreme weather that we are starting to see in the southern latitudes in our planet are actually related to the timing and presence of ice in the high latitudes because of their control on heat exchange between the ocean and atmosphere."

The scientists and stakeholders will be looking at what's going on but also what could be contributing to the drastic changes. Barber said climate change is playing a very large role, but hydroelectric regulation may also have an impact. 

The regulation of water brings more nutrients into the Hudson Bay but it also brings fresh water underneath the sea ice in the winter.

"Because it's more buoyant than ocean water is, [fresh water] has an effect on how the algae form on the bottom of the ice," Barber said.

"We are still trying to figure out exactly how that works and how the bay functions in that season when there is a lot of fresh water under the ice."

Barber said he is working with Manitoba Hydro on a collaborative project.

"There is no sort of silver bullet to understanding these very complex things. It takes a while to develop an understanding," Barber said.

"We are really trying to understand what are the relative contributions of fresh water regulation versus that of climate change."

The ArcticNet meeting takes place from Monday to Friday. For more information visit their website.