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Scientists adopt an innovative strategy to take stock of new northern parks

January/February 2011 | by Tim Lougheed

When the venerable humourist Stephen Leacock was asked why he did not return to his native England, his response struck a chord that is bound to resonate with many Canadians. In a 1936 essay on the matter, he credited the allure of Canada’s enduring frontier.

“To all of us here, the vast unknown country of the North, reaching away to the polar seas, supplies a peculiar mental background,” he wrote. “I like to think that in a few short hours in a train or car I can be in the primeval wilderness of the North; that if I like, from my summer home, an hour or two of flight will take me over the divide and down to the mournful shores of the James Bay, untenanted till yesterday, now haunted with its flock of airplanes hunting gold in the wilderness. I never have gone to the James Bay; I never go to it; I never shall. But somehow I’d feel lonely without it.”

As romantic as that notion may seem, it had already found some formal expression within the Canadian government. The Dominion Parks Branch, created just 25 years earlier, was the world’s first national park service. Although its mandate did not specifically address the challenge of fending off the loneliness of citizens, Leacock would likely have been happy to credit that spirit to this official stewardship of the nation’s more remote corners.

In fact, that initial mandate characterized parks simply as being for the health and enjoyment of Canadians, while today’s description is framed by complex terms like cultural landscape and ecological integrity. As the agency now called Parks Canada reaches its centennial in 2011, its mission has evolved even as it continues to oversee corners of the country that remain well and truly remote even in the 21st century. With around 300,000 square kilometres now designated as national park holdings, around three-quarters of that total consists of large, entirely roadless areas to the north. Some, such as Nahanni, have become internationally renowned destinations; others, like Ivvavik on the northwestern corner of the Yukon, or Baffin Island’s Sirmilik, will receive no more than a couple of hundred visitors in a given year, including Parks staff who venture there as part of their jobs.

Almost all of these northern parks have been created in the last 35 years, based on aspirations much more ambitious than those attached to the first parks founded near the end of the 19th century. In addition to protecting wild areas and their inhabitants on behalf of future generations of Canadians, these newer holdings also seek to preserve cultural landscapes, places that remain significant to indigenous populations. The Parks Canada Agency’s charter specifically cites the First Nations, Inuit and Metis traditions that have shaped the establishment and monitoring of northern parks.

While sheer physical grandeur might have been enough to define early parks such as Banff or Jasper, therefore, the discussions leading up to the establishment of more recent additions focused on technical criteria with specific environmental and cultural intentions. For example, Ukkusiksalik (2003) is representative of Canada’s central tundra region, while Torngat Mountains (2008) includes the mountainous extremity of the Canadian Shield along the northernmost end of Labrador, both places that are prominent landscapes in Inuit culture.

For Parks Canada ecologist Donald McLennan, the appeal of these newer parks goes well beyond their aesthetic virtues. He is interested in their ecological integrity, a defining principle of the agency’s entire 100-year history. The term appears prominently in the National Parks Act, which refers specifically to “a condition that is determined to be characteristic of its natural region and likely to persist, including abiotic components and the composition and abundance of native species and biological communities, rates of change and supporting processes.”

Understanding a park’s ecological integrity means keeping tabs on what is happening to the plants, animals, rocks, and water within its boundaries. Parks Canada monitoring ecologist Chantal Ouimet points out that the concept also incorporates the presence of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. Their traditional knowledge continues to contribute to the creation of northern parks, and they are also working closely with Parks Canada in the co-operative management of these areas, including the development of ecological monitoring programs.

“Indigenous people have been very important in negotiating where the boundaries should be,” she explains. “These were ecosystems and cultural landscapes that they wanted to protect. A lot of the northern parks are as big as they are because the Inuit and the First Nations people have said ‘make it big’. They understand the ecosystem, and they understand that animals like the caribou need room to roam.”

The task of ecological monitoring begins with an inventory of the environmental conditions within a particular region, taking into account physical features like climate and geology. This information usually assigns the region to one of the country’s ecozones, which will contain and define the park. From that point on, Parks Canada will monitor its ecological integrity.

Where once you might have found those ecozones nicely laid out on a map, however, today they appear to be less permanent. Well before Parks Canada celebrates its bicentennial, warming temperatures across the North promise to dramatically alter the plant and animal populations living in these regions, even as thawing permafrost alters the very texture of the landscape. This complicates the pursuit of ecological integrity, which McLennan regards as complicated enough by the location and scale of northern parks.

“It’s hard to monitor what you have without even having a really good idea of what ecosystems are present and how they function,” he admits.

Nor is such monitoring a short-term goal, he adds. The most valuable insights will only come after decades of consistent observation, when changes become clear and demonstrable. Several years ago, McLennan took advantage of an extraordinary scientific occasion — called the International Polar Year (IPY) — to get this far-sighted process under way.

The IPY is a multi-national scientific initiative dating back to the late 19th century. Every few decades, researchers from dozens of countries spend two full years collaborating on projects in the world’s polar regions. This intense activity has ushered in new perspectives on these parts of the globe, and well beyond. For example, the IPY in the 1930s revealed the existence of the jet stream in the upper atmosphere, while the IPY in the 1950s confirmed theories of continental drift.

In 2007 and 2008, a great deal of IPY activity focused on climate change. The Canadian government sponsored a wide range of projects throughout the North, including several concentrated on parks, supporting field work that represents the foundation of long-term monitoring efforts. The work might seem humble, occasionally consisting of little more than taping off an anonymous square metre in the middle of a park and measuring such elements as vegetation, small mammals, and soils. McLennan, for his part, welcomes such simplicity: the same procedure can be replicated in several plots and repeated over the years, building an authoritative record of change over time.

Yet even with the additional resources furnished by IPY, there are only so many field trips that can be conducted every year. Measurements made on the basis of square metres will still leave huge portions of the parks and surrounding areas as terra incognita. By way of getting a better grasp of what is happening across a wide area, therefore, Parks Canada has also been looking skyward.

The agency is in the middle of a four-year undertaking known as ParkSPACE, collaborating with the Canadian Space Agency and Natural Resources Canada’s Canada Centre for Remote Sensing (CCRS) to make use of orbiting satellites for collecting data.

Canada has an impressive pedigree in this field, dating back to the dawn of space exploration in the 1960s. Since 1995, for example, Radarsat-1 has been taking pictures of this country by day and night, through cloud, smoke or haze, assembling a massive database that covers the northern parks. The latest generation of such satellites, called the SPOT 5, features equipment that can yield image resolutions approaching the scale of that one-metre plot marked out by a crew on the ground. According to Robert Fraser, a scientist with the CCRS, the resulting information could begin to tackle the problem of documenting changes in places those crews do not reach.

“It’s the only cost-effective way to do that,” he says. “You start with intensive field campaigns, and remote sensing allows you to scale it up so you can say something about the park as a whole.”

For Fraser, the combination of these methodologies offers a practical solution to the challenge of monitoring vast northern spaces. Over the long term, the outcome could provide an unrivalled view of changes to come.

“There’s a great opportunity to use these parks as research nodes for what’s happening on the land,” he says.

ParkSPACE work also provides an important tool for tracking the ecological impact of climate change in the North and across Canada. Parks Canada regards this tool as an integral part of a national approach to climate change adaptation, described as Protect, Connect and Restore — protect important ecological areas in parks, connect them so that species can move across the landscape, and restore those degraded areas that are preventing species from moving across the landscape.

In order to act on that initiative, field scientists like Ouimet have identified the critical need to ensure that remote sensing is supported by what she calls “ground truthing”. At some point, she insists, you have to correlate what you see from orbit with what you would find on the ground. By further adding the insights of indigenous traditional knowledge, the results can reveal much more about the broader landscape, yielding a fuller, more cost-effective picture of ecological conditions than is otherwise possible.

Ouimet, who has been with the agency since 2005, has worked in six of the northern parks — no mean feat given the intricate logistics of access to some regions. Her work schedule is highlighted by a couple of weeks spent during the short, non-winter season in Torngat Mountains, which can be especially difficult to enter depending on the weather conditions. In this and other northern parks, Ouimet and her colleagues are examining a novel strategy for ground truth, extrapolating these findings to the broader park area using remote sensing data from satellites. The process begins with focusing the ground work on a specific area. In the Torngat Mountains, this work is concentrated on the Ivitak watershed, defined by the McCornick River.

“You want a place that has meaning,” she says. “Being a watershed, it has its own boundaries.”

Even more significantly, they have been able to draw other research teams to work in this same area. Ordinarily, groups had been choosing their sites based on where they could get the best access, such as a good boat or air connection.

At Ouimet’s urging, however, a number of these teams set up shop in the Ivitak area as well. The unprecedented diversity and intensity of such monitoring for this area should lead to a greater understanding of the watershed ecosystems and their response to climate change. With the incorporation of Inuit traditional knowledge, this sets the stage for an informed comparison of what is being captured about Ivitak and the rest of the park by satellites.

According to McLennan, those comparisons will become even stronger over the course of longterm monitoring. In this way, Parks Canada staff will be able to study the new face of ecological integrity in the country’s parks, even if they are among the least travelled places on earth. It is an enterprise that would undoubtedly have pleased Stephen Leacock.

“People do care about these parks,” he observes, referring to polls revealing just how many contemporary Canadians would share Leacock’s opinion. “It’s where nature is in Canada.”