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Vol 38  No 11
March 16, 2006


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Research team forecasts changing climate for the Labrador highlands

Feeling the heat

By Deborah Inkpen

From left, Anne Munier, Mariana Trindade, Mike McDonald, Ngaire Yurich, Keith Lewis, Chad Yurich.

Climate change is a hot topic and considered by many a serious threat to the environment. In the past, Earth’s climate has fluctuated naturally between glacial cold periods and tropical hot periods. Climate changes have usually taken many thousands of years, although there is also evidence of rapid changes at times in the distant past. Today, because of human activities, climate is changing faster than it has for thousands of years.

The Labrador Highlands Research Group (LHRG), a multidisciplinary team of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and researchers from Biology, Geography, and Environmental Science at Memorial, has been conducting research on climate change in the highland areas of Labrador since 2001. The group has focused on the sensitivity of tundra and tree-line ecosystems to climate change in the Mealy and Red Wine mountain ranges. The team includes researchers Drs. Trevor Bell, Geography, Luise Hermanutz, Biology, Alvin Simms, Geography, Keith Lewis, Biology, along with project director Dr. John Jacobs, Geography, and graduate students, Marilyn Anions, Ngaire Yurich, Seth Loader, Michael McDonald, Anne Munier, Mariana Trindade and Chad Yurich.

“In terms of scientific research, the Labrador interior has not been looked at very closely and it’s an area where we have recognized that ecosystems are being affected by the changing climate,” said Dr. Jacobs. “Generally, in Canada and elsewhere there’s been a lot of concern about impacts of climate change.”

This concern led to the group receiving initial funding from the Northern Ecosystems Initiative (NEI) of Environment Canada, with additional support from Environment Canada ­ Atlantic Region and the Wildlife Division, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. Later the program was expanded to its current three-year period by major contributions from the Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Program (CCIAP) and a further contribution from NEI. The group is preparing proposals to participate in the International Polar Year (2006-2009).

“We’re focused primarily on the transition zone between the boreal forest and the tundra of the highlands. By looking at things in elevational terms, we can see the responses in vegetation to the gradients in climate. For the last five field seasons, we’ve been measuring and mapping what’s there now and trying to infer from that what has happened in the short term,” explained Dr. Jacobs.

Members of the LHRG utilize a variety of methods, including the study of small mammals and insects, remote sensing and mapping, climate measurements and research on the tundra vegetation to give a clearer picture of how local climate and ecosystems have evolved.

“A central component of our studies is the reconstruction of past climate and vegetation from indirect or ‘proxy’ evidence,” said Ms. Trindade. “For the recent past, the annual growth rings of living and dead trees have provided information about the age of the trees and about growing-conditions.” The rings also indicate the year-to-year variation in temperature as well as precipitation levels.

“Using computer models, climate scientists predict warming of mid-latitude continental areas by more than five degrees Celsius over the next 100 years,” explained Dr. Jacobs. “Warming in Newfoundland and Labrador may be less than that. This is because the Labrador Sea, which cools our climate, may become colder. With temperatures rising slightly, especially in the winter, this region is expected to become wetter, with more of the winter precipitation falling as rain or freezing rain.”

This warming will have an effect on the vegetation and animal life of the region and then the human population that relies on the environment. Dr. Jacobs says that warming in Labrador is inevitable but, by studying the ecosystem, steps may be taken to slow down the process or at the very least prepare us to adapt to the changing climate.

“We aim to better understand relationships between climate and highland ecosystems and how they evolved in the past. This will help us to predict what will happen under a future, perhaps very different, climate.”

For more information on the Labrador Highlands Research Group see www.mun.ca/geog/lhrg/index.php.

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