Northern Lights

U of G Experts Track A Changing North To Improve Health, Environment And Food Security

Since arriving at U of G six years ago from abroad, Krishna Bahadur KC has never ventured farther north in Canada than Ontario’s Georgian Bay. But putting together his agricultural smarts and expertise in GIS and remote sensing, the geography researcher has looked well beyond Canada’s southern latitudes to gauge an unlikely-sounding prospect: farming across the North, from Yellowknife to Hudson Bay.

That forecasting project involving the Department of Geography is just one way that University of Guelph researchers are studying aspects of Canada’s North. Beyond climate-driven agricultural prospects, U of G initiatives in the country’s arctic and subarctic region range from cataloguing tiny but ecosystem-critical northern creatures, to enabling Inuit communities to track environmental and health factors, to gauging carbon release from melting permafrost beneath Canada’s sprawling boreal forests. For all their diversity, those projects are all monitoring effects of changes on northern landscapes, and how creatures – from mites to people – are being forced to accommodate changes that are worldwide in scope but particularly acute across the circumpolar North.

In the process, some of those U of G researchers have also had to adapt themselves to new situations. Computer scientist Dan Gillis first visited Canada’s North in February 2016. One day, he bundled up to go ice fishing with Inuit residents of Rigolet in Labrador’s Nunatsiavut region. How cold was it? Rock cod pulled from the hole and dropped onto the ice froze solid in about 10 seconds. “It blew my mind,” says Gillis. “We were definitely not in Guelph anymore.”

He’s part of an interdisciplinary team of University of Guelph researchers and graduates working with Inuit on a new computer app intended to help people weather the effects of climate change, ensure food security and address health problems. As conditions change in the North, those residents are experiencing more physical, social and mental health problems. “All aspects of their well-being are being affected,” says Gillis.

That’s what prompted Nunatsiavut residents to ask population medicine professor Sherilee Harper to help design and implement this app-based environment and health monitoring system. Earlier she worked on climate change effects on water-borne diseases with Nunatsiavut communities as part of an international project on climate change and health adaptation among Indigenous people. “Climate change is one of the biggest health challenges of the twenty-first century. The Inuit are on the front lines of climate change right now. They’re going to be the leaders and teach us,” says Harper, who teamed up on the project with Ashlee Cunsolo, a PhD grad of the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development (SEDRD) who is now director of the Labrador Institute, a division of Memorial University in Labrador. “The World Health Organization is suggesting the biggest health impact of climate change is going to be on food security and food systems. That’s not just an Arctic problem, it’s an international problem.”

Along with the community of Rigolet and the Nunatsiavut government, Harper, Cunsolo and Gillis are developing eNuk, a mobile app being piloted since early 2017. Users enter environmental information on their mobile devices to share with other residents and with government agencies and other organizations. For instance, a user might use photos or text to report unsafe ice or snow conditions or migration of food animals, along with an emoji to convey how they feel about the situation. In turn, public health officials might issue travel or safety advisories – all in less time and with greater accuracy. Stressing the importance of involving community members in the project, Harper says, “They’re super excited about it. This app belongs to them.”

In Labrador, U of G PhD student Jamie Snook is executive director of the Torngat Wildlife, Plants and Fisheries Secretariat in Labrador. Besides using eNuk to receive user data about landscape conditions, he says, the agency might use the app to share information about hunting licences or safety measures. “Once the app is built, there’s endless messaging we would use to improve communications with the community,” says Snook, a member of the project’s advisory board and former mayor of Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

In the Department of Population Medicine, he’s looking at how governance and co-management of fish and wildlife in the North affect the health and well-being of Indigenous people. For boards such as the Torngat Secretariat, the eNuk app can help in advising on everything from fish and wildlife harvest levels to conservation measures. Those topics are all affected by climate change in ways that the new app is intended to capture, Snook says: “Climate change is real and does affect people’s ability to travel in winter and their ability to harvest. That affects culture, which is all connected to public health.”

Labrador’s Jamie Snook is just one of several U of G grad students enrolled in the Department of Population Medicine whose studies occur in their northerly home communities, including:

  • surveillance and testing for a disease parasite in Nunavut
  • providing safe, nutritious country food in Nunavut
  • human health impacts of natural resource developments such as the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Nunatsiavut

It was in northern Labrador last summer that PhD student Monica Young boarded the Canada C3 vessel that traversed all three marine coasts in 2017 to mark the country’s sesquicentennial. A member of U of G’s Centre for Biodiversity Genomics (CBG), Young spent a week between Labrador and Iqaluit collecting soil mites for her own research project and gathering insects for CBG colleague Jeremy DeWaard. This year, they will conduct DNA barcoding on those samples to identify and catalogue northern species.

Mites play a vital role in soil nutrient recycling, Young says, but biologists know little about their prevalence and diversity, particularly in the North. She hopes to help establish baseline data so that scientists may track climate change effects. “Being able to monitor environmental change is important, but if we don’t know what’s there to begin with, we can’t measure changes.”

Monitoring ecological change also drives a long-term project by integrative biology professor Andrew McAdam in southwestern Yukon. As part of the Kluane Red Squirrel Project in the territory, he studies the animals to learn about evolutionary biology, including how populations are affected by genes and environment. Among his projects, McAdam is looking at how the squirrels communicate and adjust to their surroundings. He expects his results will help in understanding ecosystem interactions not just in the North but almost anywhere on Earth. “Ecosystems are changing generally,” he says. “We need to know how organisms are going to be able to cope with those changes.”

Ask integrative biologist Merritt Turetsky about the effects of climate change in northern Canada. The North has seen “some of the most rapid ecological change observed anywhere on the planet, and that’s because of climate change,” she says. Over the past two decades, Turetsky has studied wildfires in Alaska and the Northwest Territories. Her studies connect climate change with fires that burn longer and stronger and that hamper regeneration of the boreal forest. She has also observed the effects of melting permafrost on people and ecosystems, from undermining of built infrastructure to the potential release of carbon long locked in frozen soils.

Along with researchers at U of G and elsewhere, she is now exploring the possibility of growing crops in the North. Various modellers have predicted that Canada’s traditional crop zones will move northward under global warming. At U of G, a recent simulation by geographers under the University’s Food From Thought project suggests that crops including wheat may eventually thrive in a broad belt stretching from northern Quebec and Ontario to the Northwest Territories and into Yukon. Team member Krishna Bahadur KC says further research is needed to learn about factors from precipitation and soil traits, to lack of farming infrastructure, to the potential release of carbon from newly cultivated soils. “Not all northern soils are high in carbon,” he says. “Maybe we focus farming on areas of low soil organic carbon.”

Referring to experimental projects in various communities, including the Northern Farm Training Institute in Hay River, Northwest Territories, Turetsky says, “The North needs economic opportunities. The highest level of food insecurity in Canada is among Indigenous households.” She says precision agriculture may enable farming while mitigating greenhouse gas release and other environmental problems: “We can’t just say no. We need to develop technology.” (In a separate project, environmental sciences professor Mike Dixon has looked at modular farm systems for growing crops in the North. He says use of controlled environment technology – akin to life-support systems envisioned for long-distance space travel – might help feed northern communities and offset the cost of importing perishable produce from the southern United States and Mexico.)

From health to biology to food security, changes in the North may seem far removed from the lives of most Canadians clustered near the country’s southern border. That’s changing as more southerners look to explore a more accessible Arctic aboard expedition cruise ships. For her master’s degree completed in 2016 in the School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management, Brittany Manley surveyed cruise passengers about their environmental attitudes and behaviours. Many participants said that, post-cruise, they paid more attention to environmental issues, from volunteering or donating money to supporting environmental protection initiatives to choosing more sustainable products. Now operations coordinator for Adventure Canada based in Mississauga, Ont., Manley serves aboard a chartered vessel during summer voyages through part of the Northwest Passage, along the Labrador coast and on other northern jaunts. She says passengers learn how Northern ways of life are changing: “They learn how impacts like climate change are affecting the North so much more than here in the south.”

Those impacts on Inuit lives and livelihoods are evident to the Labrador Institute’s Cunsolo. In 2013, she filmed the documentary Lament for the Land with the five Inuit communities of Nunatsiavut. “We did interview after interview of people crying and sharing very strong emotions and talking about sadness, loss and grief,” says Cunsolo, who is also an associated graduate faculty member at U of G. Last year, she published Mourning Nature, a collection of essays about ecological change worldwide, co-edited with SEDRD professor Karen Landman. “People talked about grieving for the environment and mourning nature,” says Cunsolo. “More people are having very real grief responses and asking how the idea of grief and mourning can change policy action.”

Besides film and literature, fine art has also served to document changes in the environment and ways of life in the North. Some of those impacts were evident in works selected for 150 Acts: Art, Activism, Impact at the Art Gallery of Guelph earlier this year. Drawn from the gallery’s extensive collection of Indigenous art featuring Inuit drawings, paintings and sculpture, the exhibition included pieces by Pudlo Pudlat, Jessie Oonark, Shuvinai Ashoona and Annie Pootoogook, among others. Senior curator Andrew Hunter, who joined the AGG last fall from the Art Gallery of Ontario, has visited the North through his ongoing work with Inuit artists.

He recalls a mid-winter visit onto the sea ice with Cape Dorset artist and hunter Tim Pitsiulak, who died in 2016. For a southerner like Hunter accustomed to thinking of the North as white and silent, that trek offered a sensory awakening, from their snow-squeaking footsteps to the ever-changing blues, purples and greys of sky, snow and ice. Upending preconceptions about Northern Canada is partly the point of the gallery’s collection, he says: “How can art address issues, share and build a dialogue – and not just show things but engage viewers? Art is both public and political.”

Those ideas resonate with other researchers, including Cunsolo. She says it’s important to gather evidence for making decisions that integrates Indigenous and western science. Paraphrasing one Mi’kmaq elder who likened the tension between western and traditional knowledge to travelling with an Inuit komatik sled, she says, “Sometimes you have to pull from the front. Sometimes you have to push from the back. Sometimes other people push and pull while you take a rest. You’re all moving in the same direction; the key is to know when to pull, when to push, and when to rest and let others take the lead. We all have different skill sets, different ways of understanding and experiencing the world.”