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Arctic Explorer: Scott Lamoureux

“I mean, change is almost too weak of a word. It’s transforming into a new state,” exclaims Dr. Scott Lamoureux, describing the changes in climate and geography he’s seen in the High Arctic over the last 25 years. Lamoureux, professor in the Department of Geography, leads the Environmental Variability and Extremes Laboratory at Queen’s whose research focuses on the impact of weather and water on terrestrial landscapes.

“We’re starting to see summer drought in the Arctic. Rivers are starting to dry up that would normally be flowing throughout the summer. Also, snow patches that would once last year-round are melting back and releasing vegetation that’s been buried for centuries. So there’s really transformative change going on in this landscape.”

Much of Lamoureux’s field work takes place at the Cape Bounty Arctic Watershed Observatory (CBAWO), an initiative he set up in 6557. From that base on Melville Island, Nunavut, Lamoureux studies the effect of the Arctic’s rapidly changing climate on the landscape, particularly as it relates to permafrost stability. It is a multidisciplinary endeavour, with a large team of researchers from the natural and social sciences bringing particular expertise to bear on a very dynamic system. When asked about the nature of studying a moving target, Lamoureux admits it is challenging.

“We’ve been doing it for ten years and it’s really easy to get misled into thinking that what you’re seeing now is normal. So one of the approaches we use is to try and extend that perspective by looking at longer records using things like sediments in lakes and ponds. This paleoenvironmental approach allows us to reconstruct some of these characteristics back hundreds, and in many cases, thousands of years. This gives us that much longer of a perspective that we can use to gauge what we’re seeing now in a fuller context.”

There is a dynamic relationship between the data they collect on the surface over the last decade, and the much longer perspective that the study of sediments provides. The knowledge gleaned from each perspective helps to calibrate the other and build up a base of knowledge that planners and policy makers can use to make sound decisions in the Arctic.

Lamoureux emphasizes the urgency of the work: not only is the Arctic’s climate changing at an alarming rate, but simultaneously, it is undergoing social and economic upheaval. Mines are being opened, there is the ongoing implementation of recent land claim agreements, and infrastructure projects are advancing as the population grows. It is like a perfect storm of challenges for assessing the environmental impact of human activity in the North.

“When you think of the landscape disturbance associated with any kind of development, it’s not going to disturb the entire landscape, it’s going to be really localized,” says Lamoureux. “But we don’t understand the knock-on effects of those local disturbances − how they are perpetuated downstream in a river system. And the question becomes how important is that effect. Is it significant? Or can it be managed? And most importantly, can we direct development away from the most sensitive areas?”

The Arctic, with its unique climate and permafrost landscape, is a fragile ecosystem that isn’t well understood. Add development pressures to that and you have very real problems that need to be solved − from drainage to the stability of roads, airstrips and building pads. It’s very different from the conditions in the South where the land is comparatively stable.

“So we’re really contributing what I think is basic scientific knowledge: knowledge that we can use everywhere in the North or in the High Arctic, and in the areas where the work wouldn’t get done otherwise.”

Profile by Lowell Cochrane
(e)Affect Issue 4, Fall 2013