ICSU Dark Nature


Aims, scope and workplan

IGCP 490


An Interdisciplinary Meeting, June 15-17, 2005, Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada

Conference report by David Liverman (Geological Survey of Newfoundland and Labrador) and Panya Lipovsky (Yukon Geological Survey)

This interdisciplinary meeting was convened under the auspices of the "Dark Nature" project funded by the International Council of Science (ICSU). This project aims to examine how past societies and communities reacted in the face of harmful change; and explore the implications of rapid natural change for current environmental and public policies.

The conference focused on rapid landscape change in the Artic regions. The Arctic is of particular interest because it is expected that the greatest effects of warming due to greenhouse gases will occur in high latitudes; because the landscape is particularly sensitive due to the presence of frozen ground; and because it the location of much planned development, particularly in the energy sector. Artic peoples are closely tied to the land, and may be particularly vulnerable to landscape changes.

The meeting consisted of three days of presentations and discussions, followed by a two-day field trip. Over 75 participants registered, dominantly from North America, but there were also attendees from Argentina, Russia, Lithuania and the UK. Of particular note was the participation of First Nations representatives from the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Technical sessions were held in the attractive surroundings of Yukon College, lying on the edge of the small city of Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon. Whitehorse is located in the sub-Artic, and lies in a broad valley with extensive boreal forest. At nearly mid-summer, there was only a brief period of darkness, with the sun setting after 11 pm at night.

The Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre provided an impressive setting for the welcoming reception, with a fine selection of food and beverages provided through the support of the Yukon Government Heritage Branch. A highlight was a special screening of Yukoner Carol Geddes' animated film "Two Winters - Tales From Above the Earth." This award winning production is based on an oral history account of an extraordinary event that took place in the middle of the 19th century - harsh climatic change ascribed to effects of distant volcanic eruptions.

The meeting was opened with addresses from Sally Webber (President of Yukon College) and Eric Morris, acting Grand Chief, Council of Yukon First Nations. Eric Morris gave a fascinating introduction to the views of and problems faced by Yukon First Nations people with regard to the changing environment. His wish to see scientific research integrated with community needs and interests was one that became a theme of the meeting, and was echoed by many.

Co-chairs Tony Berger and Dave Liverman opened the scientific sessions with an overview of the conference themes. They were followed by Dark Nature project coordinator Suzanne Leroy, who gave a key-note address on patterns of environmental change and collapse of civilizations. Following these broad overviews, the rest of the day was devoted to more detailed studies, including Marianne Douglas describing rapid warming in the high Arctic over the last 150 years as shown by diatom studies, Lesleigh Anderson's study of high resolution records of climate variability as shown by lake sediments in the SW Yukon, and David Fisher outlining the results of Mount Logan ice core studies. Chris Burn provided an excellent example of community involvement in research where he has been studying permafrost changes with the assistance in monitoring of volunteers from the community of Mayo. Two Russian scientists Š Marina Liebman and Alexander Kizyakov Š described the relationship between permafrost, landslides and climate change in the Russian Arctic. The day concluded with presenters providing brief introductions to their posters.

The Thursday session had a strong emphasis on dendrochronology, and forest ecology. Oleg Raspopov describes cyclical climate variation on the Euroasian Arctic coast delineated by 500-year tree ring records. Brian Luckman presented on a variety of tree-ring studies in the Yukon, demonstrating chronological control and insight on rapid landscape changes in the Kluane area. Ryan Danby showed clear evidence of recent changes at tree-line in Kluane, and Dan Youngblut examined fire records in the Yukon using tree ring evidence. Suzanne Carri¸re gave an interesting presentation linking fire history, snowshoe hare populations and rapid development of defences in birch in Arctic Canada; and Scott Green looked at detailed forest ecology across tree-lines.

The day featured two thought-provoking but very different keynote talks. Julie Brigham-Grette provided a long-term view of climate, sea-level changes and vegetation changes in Beringia, and related this to the history of human occupation in the area. Philosopher Holmes Rolston presented an insightful view of the environment, applying Darwinian thought to the process of death and renewal, and drawing parallels with religious views of redemption through rebirth. His description of traveling over peatlands as "walking on corpses" was particularly memorable!

Thursday's program concluded with a brief discussion, led by a panel of Marianne Douglas, Chris Burn, Sheila Greer and Cindy Dickson. The topic for discussion was "How do we make palaeoenvironmental research more relevant for communities". The panel provided a varied approach to the problem and there was useful input from the audience. Again the theme of community involvement in research came through strongly.

The final day had more of a social sciences and humanities emphasis, but started off with three varied studies using palaeoenvironmental methods. Kevin Edwards examined the Norse settlements in the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland, applying palaeocological information to give insight into the historical record. Petra Mudie presented a fascinating analysis using forensic palynology to trace the last journey of "Long Ago Person Found", a 550 year old frozen body from northern BC. Luis Borrero talked about palaecological studies from Patagonia, and suggested that the archeological record showed a population that was resilient and flexible, surviving climatic shifts with little problem.

Greg Hare described some results from ice-patch studies in the Yukon, where careful examination of perennial ice patches, used by caribou to escape summer heat, has revealed a collection of superbly preserved artifacts. He demonstrated a clear cultural change, with the adoption of bow-and-arrow hunting methods coincident with the fall of the White River ash. This points to a major disruption of society perhaps caused by the effects of volcanic eruption. Trevor Bell took us to eastern Canada, and the southernmost extension of Arctic cultures in Newfoundland. His study demonstrated collapse or migration of Palaeoeskimo settlements following climate change affecting sea-ice conditions. They were replaced by people with a less-specialized and more flexible style of living.

Nick Brooks was the final keynote speaker and he outlined the relationship between risk, hazard and vulnerability; and commented on the balance between adaptation and mitigation in response to change. Using examples from northern Africa, he demonstrated different means by which past civilizations adapted, as well as the costs associated with adaptation.

Wayne Howell showed how oral history of the Huna Tlingit related to glacier expansion in Glacier Bay Alaska. James Ford, who has been working with indigenous communities in Nunavut. James described highly resourceful and adaptable people whose problems perhaps are more with changes in their social structure rather than in the physical environment. Bill Horne gave us an unusual perspective, taking examples from the literature of Arctic exploration, and reflecting on their relevance to current problems. Karl Gad and Frank Duerden illustrated how newspaper reports could be used to portray a history of hazards, using the Yukon as an example. The formal presentations concluded with Thom Heyd reflecting on environmental ethics, and advocating a degree of respect for the natural environment.

The meeting concluded with a lively discussion, ranging over the issues of communication between scientists, with communities and with the media; and a need for greater involvement of northern people and communities in Arctic research. These and other key points made during the conference were summarized in a declaration on rapid landscape change which received the support of participants as a message from the meeting.

Panya Lipovsky of the Yukon Geological Survey led a two day field trip that was well attended by 40 participants. On Saturday, Chris Burn demonstrated his long-term permafrost monitoring sites in Takhini Valley, where Bruce Bennett also led a walk out to some unique salt flats. At Kusawa Lake, participants visited an important cultural and archaeological site and had the opportunity to see White River ash and the effects of recent floods and debris flows on a government campground and a local fishery. A short stop at the Kluane National Park Visitor's Centre in Haines Junction provided an introduction to the park and the effects of recent glacial advances on the local landscape. Participants then visited a wildlife museum in Burwash Landing, and attended a one hour talk from Kluane First Nation elder, Joe Johnson, on the shores of Kluane Lake. The evening was completed with a lake trout dinner, beach bonfire and horseshoe tournament at the Burwash Landing Resort.

On Sunday, an introduction to Kluane First Nation culture was provided by Sheila Greer. Ryan Danby described recent alpine treeline changes in the Burwash Uplands, and Al von Finster addressed the impacts of the recent reversal in the drainage direction of Kluane Lake on salmon fisheries. A minor bus breakdown offered a chance for participants to see tree coring methods and White River ash exposed in a soil pit. At the south end of Kluane Lake, Panya Lipovsky pointed out various types of landslides and alluvial fan activity and Brian Luckman showed drowned tree stumps and strandlines that were used to recreate past Kluane Lake level fluctuations. Participants walked a self-guided interpretive trail depicting the history of the Alaska Highway and a short stop was made at the Arctic Institute of North America Kluane Lake Research Station. The final leg home offered a chance to see the devastating effects of spruce beetle kills in the Haines Junction area, and Sheila Greer provided a background on recent ice patch archeological work.

This successful meeting was the fifth in the Dark Nature project (previous meetings were in Mauritania, Mozambique, Argentina, and Iran). It was the first to feature the specific problems of northern regions. The combination of physical and social scientists; and representatives from the humanities, local communities, and First Nations provided a wider range of participants than most previous meetings, and provided all with much to think about. Selected papers from the meeting will be published in the Northern Review, a journal designed for a general audience. The Dark Nature project concludes with a final meeting in Como, Italy in September 2005 (see http://scienze-como.uninsubria.it/ambientale/sitodn/). The Whitehorse conference contributed towards the objectives of this project, and helped to strengthen long-term links between researchers and the people of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories.

The conference could not have been held without the assistance received from many sources, and in particular local organizations, including the Northern Climate ExChange, the Canadian Climate Impact and Adaptation Research Network, Yukon College, and the Yukon Department of Tourism and Culture. Support for young researchers and foreign participants came from ICSU, the Canadian International Development Agency, the Geoindicator Initiative of the International Union of Geological Sciences, and INQUA.

For further information see www.taiga.net/rapidchange.

This website is hosted by Memorial University with support from the Canadian Quaternary Association