Nfld. & Labrador

Excited about summer? In Gros Morne, they're still studying snow beds

Parks Canada researchers are studying the melt-out dates for snow in Gros Morne National Park to test the health of the ecosystem.

There's still snow on the ground at Big Level in the national park, and that's a good thing

Holly Lightfoot is a researcher with Parks Canada at Gros Morne National Park. (Submitted by Gros Morne National Park)

At this time of the year, not many people want to even think about snow, let alone study it. But the study of the snow still on the ground in Gros Morne National Park provides important information about how the surrounding ecosystem will handle climate change, says a Parks Canada researcher.

"We're interested in understanding whether that growing season is changing and whether that will have an impact on those arctic alpine species that are in that area," said researcher Holly Lightfoot said.

"What we've been finding is that the melt-out date for these areas, so the date when plants can start growing, is actually becoming later in the season."

Parks across the country have special monitoring projects in place that allow them to measure the health of the ecosystem, Lightfoot said. 

At Gros Morne there are five such projects, including tracking the populations of rock ptarmigan and arctic hare, and monitoring the herb willow cover.

In parts of Gros Morne, it's not unusual for snow to remain into July. (Submitted by Gros Morne National Park)

Another one of those projects is the one that monitors the melt-out date of snow beds in the park, she said, specifically on Big Level, the high-elevation plateau between Bakers Brook and Western Brook.

"In combination, all of these projects allow us to track changes over time and identify potential concerns with our ecosystem, and then we can make appropriate management decisions to address these concerns before they become bigger problems," Lightfoot said.

Tracking temperature

It's beginning to feel like summer in Rocky Harbour, Lightfoot said, but the situation is very different in elevated parts of Gros Morne, where there is still snow on the ground and ice on the ponds. 

Snow melt on Big Level, one of Newfoundland's largest arctic alpine ecosystems, is monitored every year at 14 sites. Devices that log the temperature each hour are placed on the sites every two years, at which point they must be replaced.

When the loggers are covered in snow, the temperature around them stabilizes at about 0 C because the snow acts as an insulator, Lightfoot said. When the snow around them melts, they're exposed to the air temperature and the temperature readings skyrocket. 

"We can tell exactly when that logger was exposed to the air temperature, and then we know when that melt-out date happened," she said.

The climate change connection

That melt-out date matters for several reasons. Over the winter months, snow accumulates in these elevated areas due to the topography and prevailing winds. Over the last 10 years, the melt-out date falls in the middle of July, Lightfoot said, which makes for a short growing season in the area. 

Caribou like these escape to the cooler areas of Gros Morne to get away from summer bugs, says Lightfoot. (Submitted by Gros Morne National Park)

That's important for the arctic alpine ecosystem, she said, because the shorter season means the vegetation has a higher nutrient content for waterfowl like geese, which depend on it for food. 

And the snow itself is important for caribou, Lightfoot said.

"They hang out in these snow bed areas to avoid some ofthe biting insects that plague them in lower elevations."

There is concern that these snow beds could be vulnerable to climate change, Lightfoot said, but so far the findings from the loggers indicates the melt-out date has actually moved slightly later, which means a later start to the growing season.

The loggers don't measure the total amount of snow on the ground, Lightfoot says, but it's clearly a lot. (Submitted by Gros Morne National Park)

This is important because movement in the other direction could subject the native plants to competition from more southerly species, she said. The findings are in line with international climate change models that predict more precipitation in regions like these, especially in the winter.

"We were quite concerned that these snow bed areas could be vulnerable to climate change," Lightfoot said.

So far, the data from the loggers indicates that the trends are stable, as is the percentage cover of herb willow at the same locations. That's good news, Lightfoot said, because healthy ecosystems are more resilient to climate change.

"Right now our arctic alpine ecosystem is in a state of good ecological integrity."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Newfoundland Morning

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