North·In Depth

The Arctic is warming 4 times faster than the world. What does that mean for the N.W.T.?

World leaders want to cap global warming at 1.5 C. If we meet that goal, it’ll still be several degrees warmer in the N.W.T.

The N.W.T. has already warmed between 2 and 4 C since 1950

The Scotty Creek research station, used to study climate change near Fort Simpson, N.W.T., was almost completely destroyed by an unusually late-season wildfire in October. (Submitted by Mason Dominico)

If we manage to cap global warming at 1.5 C since pre-industrial times, it'll be several degrees warmer in Canada's North. This is the first instalment of a series that looks at what six degrees of warmth will mean for the N.W.T.

A pair of reports this past year say the Arctic is warming not twice as fast as the rest of the world, not three times as fast — but four times as fast.

One was published in the journal Nature, and the other in Geophysical Research Letters

In an effort to spell out what that could mean in the N.W.T., which includes a large chunk of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, we've done some basic math at the suggestion of Kent Moore, an atmospheric physics professor at the University of Toronto. 

"Anything you read which is framed in terms of a global average surface temperature, double it or maybe even quadruple it for the Arctic," he said. So we did.

If the world manages to cap warming at 1.5 C like world leaders have committed to, and if the Arctic continues to warm four times as quickly as the rest of the world, it could mean 6 C of warming for the Arctic.

A burned stand of trees about 50 kilometers south of Wrigley on July 12. Jennifer Baltzer, a Canada Research Chair in forests and global change, says continued warming means forest fires will become more frequent and severe. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

Scientists say 6 C of warming would lead to drastic changes in the way the North looks, feels and sustains life. 

A report on climate change in northern Canada, released last week by Natural Resources Canada, says changes can "deeply impact" the people who live in the North and who rely on the land. It also says the speed of change is outpacing our existing capacity to adapt. 

The N.W.T. has already warmed between 2 and 4 C since record-keeping began in 1950. 

This series, organized into three parts, aims to paint a picture of what 6 C of warming will look like in the N.W.T. Though we've broken the series into three areas of the territory, the effects described in each segment are not limited to each geographical area. 

We start with issues predominantly affecting subarctic regions in the Dehcho, North and South Slave, and Sahtu.

Forest fires change forest composition, thaw permafrost

In those four regions of the N.W.T., wildfires burned more than 650,000 hectares of land this year. Burn area is one of the ways we quantify the size of forest fires. 

Jennifer Baltzer, an associate professor of biology at Wilfrid Laurier University and Canada Research Chair in forests and global change, said it's impossible to anticipate the size of burned areas in the N.W.T. if the territory warms by 6 C.

But, she said, we can anticipate continued warming will lead to bigger burn areas and more frequent and severe forest fires. As the winter season gets shorter, fire seasons will grow on both ends, extending into the fall (like what happened in the N.W.T. this year) and starting earlier because fires will continue smouldering in the soil throughout the winter. 

On the left is a photo of forest fire damage to the Scotty Creek research facility, compared to a photo of what it used to look like on the right. (Submitted by Mason Dominico, Scotty Creek Research Facility)

It is normal for wildfires to burn peatlands and to release some of the carbon they store. But more intense wildfires may have the capacity to burn all the organic carbon stored in the soil, said Baltzer. 

"So a major concern … is that we'll see a shift of the boreal forest from being a carbon sink where a lot of the carbon is locked in, locked into the system and stored there, to being a carbon source." 

Releasing carbon into the air is one of the effects of intensifying wildfire years. Baltzer said wildfires are also changing the composition of forests. In some cases, she's seen pine or aspen trees growing where black spruce once stood

"In fact, in about 10 per cent of the forest sites that we measured, we found that forest did not recover to forest at all. It transitioned to some other endpoint, either sort of shrubbed thickets or grassland," she said.

That, in turn, can affect wildlife that rely on certain types of vegetation. 

"Caribou, for example, are really tightly coupled with these spruce, lichen woodlands. Species like moose prefer these newer, these younger forests or deciduous dominated forests. Bison may prefer those open grasslands."

Forest fires also change the landscape by contributing to permafrost thaw, said Baltzer. Fires remove the canopy that provides shade and combust soil that would otherwise insulate the ground and keep it cool. 

"In western Northern America, where we have a very dry climate, changes in precipitation are certainly not keeping pace with changes in temperature. And as a consequence, we've seen … a very obvious intensification of fire activity in response to the warming we've seen already." 

Climate link to ice jam floods needs more research

Every spring, river-adjacent communities in the N.W.T. face the risk of flooding from ice jams. Such jams caused severe flooding in Hay River, K'atl'odeeche First Nation, West Point First Nation and Enterprise this spring, and in Fort Simpson and Jean Marie River the year before. 

As the climate warms, we know more extreme weather events are taking place around the world and people are being displaced by weather-related disasters like flooding. But drawing a direct link between climate change and floods caused by ice jams in the N.W.T. is complex. 

Aerial views of Fort Simpson, Jean Marie River after flooding forces evacuations

2 years ago
Duration 3:23
Floods, caused by spring river break-up on the Liard and Mackenzie Rivers, have forced residents of the N.W.T. communities of Fort Simpson and Jean Marie River to evacuate. CBC's Eden Maury surveyed both communities from the air on May 10.

The recently released northern chapter of Natural Resources Canada's Regional Perspectives report says climate change is creating the conditions for ice jams in some cases — and for reducing the severity of ice jams in others. 

It also says while overall precipitation is projected to continue increasing in the North, flood events from snow melt are declining in some large rivers. 

The report says local and Indigenous knowledge and monitoring will help us better understand the complex processes that lead to ice jam flooding, and how climate change is influencing their frequency and severity. 

Water covers the hood of a car parked outside a seniors complex in Hay River, N.W.T., during a major flood in the spring of 2022. (Emma Grunwald/CBC)

After floodwaters forced Dieter Cazon out of his home in Fort Simpson in 2021, he said there was a "meeting of minds" where he, his dad, his uncles and his cousins compared what had happened to a flood in the spring of 1963. 

Their conclusion, said Cazon, was that in the fall before each flood, ice formed and then broke up in November and jammed past Simpson Island, creating a thick layer of ice that contributed to jams and flooding in the spring. 

Cazon and his family didn't return to their home until about half a year after the flood. Even now, an emotional toll still lingers. He lost musical equipment, among other things, and he's thinking critically about whether to replace them — thinking, now, about how the production and shipment of new guitars and amps generates emissions.

Getting the message out

Cazon, who is the director of lands and resources for Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation in Fort Simpson, said the local government is thinking about climate change in everything it does, and he's been part of conversations that examine changes that may happen in 50 to 70 years — rather than at 6 C of warming.

In that time frame, Cazon said, muskeg and wetlands in the Dehcho will become straight boreal forest, thereby changing the perpetual flux of water through the landscape. The warming temperature will also continue to cause stress to local wildlife and may allow invasive species to move northward into areas where they previously weren't able to survive, he said. 

The Regional Perspective Report confirms Cazon's fears. According to the report, forest insects are now able to survive warming winters. It pointed to a spruce budworm infestation in 2015 as an example, which caused the widespread defoliation of spruce trees in the Mackenzie Delta. 

Looking ahead to 6 C of warming is "not a small question, in any regard," said Cazon. He has a front seat to changes already happening in his own backyard — from flooding to land erosion to the deteriorating health of fish  — and he's making a point of talking about them. 

"These things need to be talked about," he said. "How can we get the message out?"

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Liny Lamberink

Reporter/Editor

Liny Lamberink is a reporter for CBC North. She moved to Yellowknife in March 2021, after working as a reporter and newscaster in Ontario for five years. She can be reached at liny.lamberink@cbc.ca

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