Impacts of changing permafrost and hydrology on nutrients, dissolved organic matter, and contaminants in High Arctic catchments

Cape Bounty Arctic Watershed Observatory (CBAWO) Meville Island, and Resolute Bay, NU

[Camp, East and West Lakes at CBAWO.]
Camp, East and West Lakes at CBAWO.
Credit M.Lafrenière

My research at the CBAWO is part of a collaborative integrated watershed research program that has operated at the site since 2005. This research is focused on investigations of the effects of changes in precipitation and permafrost conditions (active layer depth and disturbances, permafrost temperature) on hydrology and solute, nutrients, and carbon dynamics in High Arctic watersheds.

Research under this program examines the movement and composition of water, nutrients, contaminants and organic carbon from a series of watersheds, ponds and lakes with varying types of vegetation, and varying degrees of permafrost disturbance.

Through these intensive fields and laboratory-based investigations, the research aims to develop an integrated understanding of the hydrological and biogeochemical processes that control water quality and C and N dynamics in surface waters.

A recent ArcticNet grant is supporting a new collaborative research project that aims to bring knowledge gained at CBAWO, community concerns and traditional knowledge about the land and water around Resolute Bay.

The objectives of the research at Resolute Bay is to develop a framework for strong and sustainable knowledge exchange with the community, to identify and address research needs, and to engage the community in partnerships and dialog that will result in co-creation of knowledge, opportunity, and capacity to investigate water and ecosystem sensitivities related to climate and permafrost change in the area.

This ongoing research has been funded through a number of grants from NSERC DiscoveryArcticNet, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and logistics support from the Polar Continental Shelf Program.

The CBAWO is the longest running integrated watershed study in the Canadian High Arctic. This natural observatory offers a unique facilities and training experience, with opportunities to participate in numerous aspects of the collaborative research that take place at this site.

For more information, you can also visit the CBAWO website and blog.

Niaqunguk (Apex) River Watershed, Iqaluit, Nunavut

[Ice under vegetated soils in the Niaqunguk river, Iqaluit.]
Ice under vegetated soils in the Niaqunguk
river, Iqaluit. Credit: M. Lafrenière

Research at the Niaqunguk (also known as the Apex) River in Iqaluit was initiated in May 2013 and consists of a collaborative research program aimed at understanding of how water quantity and quality are responding to changing climate and permafrost dynamics in current or future source waters around Iqaluit.

Research here is motivated by interest and concerns by local residents and the city about changing river flows and water quality. There is an abundance of local informal land use in the watershed, and thus great interest and need for a thorough understanding of the watershed, especially in light of projected population growth and climate change.

A recently awarded Polar Knowledge Canada grant, led by Dr. Lafrenière, will support renewed research efforts in the watersheds around Iqaluit between 2021-2024. This new award involves both new and renewed collaborative research efforts involving investigators from Université de Montreal, Carleton University, University of Ottawa, and partners at the Nunavut Research Institute.

This project aims to 1) quantify how different components of the water cycle (snowfall, streamflow, subsurface flow, evaporation, evapotranspiration, and sublimation) and permafrost conditions respond to climate regimes, by applying snow surveying, hydrometric monitoring and drone remote sensing; and to 2) understand how climate-driven changes to permafrost conditions and surface water quantity will impact water quality, through geochemical analyses of water and permafrost as determined from field surveying and satellite remote sensing. This project builds on partnerships with NRI and NAC ETP staff and students to support a program of water science research in this under-studied area.

This research project offers a unique opportunity to participate in Arctic watershed research that is of direct and critical importance to northerners and the City of Iqaluit. For more information on any research opportunities please contact Dr. Lafrenière.

Hydrological and thermokarst as controls on DOM fluxes and aquatic GHG emissions 

 Eastern Arctic permafrost watersheds, including Bylot Island, NU

[Thermo-erosion gully, Bylot Island, NU]
Thermo-erosion gully, Bylot Island, NU
Credit: M Lafrenière

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the decomposition of carbon derived from thawing permafrost represents a potential positive feedback on global warming. Thermokarst lakes and ponds have been identified as hotspots for GHG emissions in permafrost landscapes. However we have a limited understanding of how biological, geochemical, and hydrological mechanisms interact to affect downstream aquatic GHG emissions.

This project integrates microbiological, biogeochemical and hydrological process studies determine how these processes regulate the quantity and lability of the dissolved organic matter (DOM) delivered from soils and surface waters to downstream aquatic environments, and thus exert control on aquatic GHG emissions.

Dr. Lafreniere’s research will examine how seasonal hydrological processes and thermo-erosion gully development regulate the chemical composition, size and lability of fluvial DOM. These studies will help elucidate how climatically driven changes in upland processes might impact the GHGs in downstream aquatic systems.

Dr. Lafreniere’s contribution to this project is funded by an NSERC Alliance supplement to the FRQNT funded research led by Dr. Peter Douglas at McGill University. The project also involves an interdisciplinary group of collaborators from McGill, INRS, and with the Centre d’études Nordique (CEN). The research is also supported for field logistics from the Polar Continental Shelf Program and NSERC Discovery grants to Dr. Lafrenière.