North

NASA hits skies to study climate change in Canada's North

NASA will be flying over much of Northern Canada this summer as part of a 10-year project to better understand the impacts of climate change on Arctic and Boreal ecosystems.

Scientists to conduct airborne survey of environment change this summer

An airplane similar to this NASA aircraft will be flying over the Northwest Territories this summer as part of a project to measure effects of climate change in Canada's North. (Submitted by Dr. Peter Griffith)

NASA will be flying over much of Northern Canada this summer as part of a 10-year project to better understand the impacts of climate change on Arctic and Boreal ecosystems.

The space agency's Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) is now in its second year, but this is the first time scientists are conducting airborne tests.

"The overarching goal is to better understand the impacts on ecosystems and on society of the rapid environment change that's occurring in the Arctic-Boreal region of North America," said Dr. Peter Griffith, chief support scientist with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre.

"When we can integrate [fieldwork] with airborne observations and satellite observations, then we can have a much stronger understanding of how things are happening across a broad region."

Scientists with the Northwest Territories government, the federal government and select Canadian universities are assisting with the multi-year project.

Dr. Peter Griffith, chief support scientist with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre, near Scotty Creek, approximately 50 kilometres south of Fort Simpson. (Submitted by Dr. Peter Griffith)

'Sooner and faster than anywhere else'

Griffith says one aircraft has already completed a circuit of the region, flying from Yellowknife to Inuvik and down the west coast of Alaska before returning to the N.W.T. capital.

Scientists on board that flight were particularly concerned with levels of carbon dioxide, methane and carbon monoxide in the atmosphere.

But in the weeks to come, other aircraft will use radar and other instruments to collect data on everything from permafrost thaw to water levels, topography and plant growth in Western Canada and Alaska.

"This part of the world is experiencing the impacts of climate change sooner and faster than anywhere else," said Griffith.

"These data will be available to everyone to hopefully make better informed decisions about the way we care for our planet."

Permafrost and its global impact

Griffith says impacts that are felt in Arctic and Boreal ecosystems matter on a global scale.

As permafrost thaws, methane and carbon dioxide that are stored in the soil are released into the atmosphere. Griffith says those excess gases trap more heat, speeding up global warming.

"Permafrost performs an environmental service for the entire planet and the rest of humanity, whether they realize it or not, because it stores a massive amount of organic carbon," he said.

Thawing permafrost can also pose challenges for roads and buildings that are built on top of it.

Griffith says the clearest example of that is when infrastructure starts to crack, shift or sink as the ground beneath it becomes unsteady.

That's why another component of the project will look at environmental changes that are the result of human activity, such as construction.

The next round of NASA flights will be coming through Yellowknife on May 22.

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