Experts lament lack of science on 'Amazon of the North'

There is a marked lack of scientific knowledge about the vast northern river basin often referred to as the Amazon of the North, warns a panel of international experts gathered to discuss the future of the Mackenzie River Basin.

Mackenzie River Basin least studied in the world, scientists say

The Mackenzie River Delta in the Northwest Territories is shown here in Aug. 2009. Experts are warning of 'worrisome' trends in the Mackenzie River watershed spanning through B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Yukon. (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

There is a marked lack of scientific knowledge about the vast northern river basin often referred to as the Amazon of the North, warns a panel of international experts gathered to discuss the future of the Mackenzie River Basin.

The watershed is three times the size of France, stretching through B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, yet it became evident over several days of meetings that it is the least studied and monitored in the world, said Dr. Henry Vaux, chairman of the Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy, a California-based think-tank that organized the panel in Vancouver.   

"I would interpret the evidence to say that the existing science provides us with signs of some worrisome things out there that we need to understand better," said Vaux, who is also a resource economist at the University of California.   

The forum gathered experts in science, law and politics who looked at science, governance and aboriginal knowledge of the river system. A final report will be issued in January that the panel hopes will help guide the six various governments toward shared management.   

'Worrisome' trends

In the interim, Vaux said, the committee affirmed the global significance of the Mackenzie River basin, which has been described as a massive air conditioning system for the Earth.   

At a time when climate change and global warming make daily headlines, there are "worrisome" trends in the basin, he said.

"The benefits that flow from that river basin accrue not just to Canadians and not just to North Americans but to people throughout the western hemisphere and around the globe," Vaux said Friday, at the conclusion of the meeting.   

"The federal government and the provincial and territorial governments, as well as the appropriate aboriginal entities, are the stewards of that global resource."   

The basin includes the Peace and Liard rivers in northern British Columbia, the South Nahanni and Peel rivers in the Yukon, and the Hay and Athabasca rivers in Alberta, all of which feed the 1,800-kilometre Mackenzie River.   

It covers a staggering 1.8 million square kilometres of land, and takes in Great Slave, Great Bear and Athabasca lakes.    And it falls into six different government jurisdictions in Canada. Experts say the lack of an overall management plan poses the greatest risk.

Environmental impact   

The Mackenize basin has a direct impact on the formation of sea ice and fresh water flow into the Arctic Ocean. It is an international waypoint for migratory birds from around the globe, and it provides climate stability for the continent and likely beyond.   

The basin that covers 20 per cent of Canada's land mass is also rich in natural resources that include pristine forests and vast deposits of oil, oil sands, natural gas and minerals. The potential for resource development is immense.   

In B.C., the province has already built the W.A.C. Bennett dam on the system and has proposed its massive Site C hydroelectric project. In Alberta, the oil sands development is upstream of the river.   

And in November 2011, the U.S. government began lifting its moratorium on off-shore drilling, announcing a five-year plan that included leases for oil development on Alaska's outer continental shelf.   

Dr. Lance Lesack, a professor of biological sciences at Simon Fraser University who has studied the Mackenzie River for 20 years, said right now, the Mackenzie River system is relatively pristine.   

But there are a lot of potential downstream effects from development upstream, which combine with effects of global warming affecting the North.   

"It's a really complicated machine and we're trying to untangle how it works," said Lesack, who did not take part in the panel.   

"As far as areas where there's not that many people living, there's a reasonable amount of science that's actually been done but not really nearly enough to answer the nuts-and-bolts management issues that really require a more sophisticated understanding of the system."   

Bob Sandford, a water policy analyst and a member of the Rosenberg advisory committee, said there is evidence of climate change already in the basin. The changes are subtle but "worrisome."   

"Now is not a good time to abandon the science," he said.