Generating research to power the territory

It's a scene that's all too familiar to most Yukoners: it's the middle of a cold, dark winter and suddenly you're plunged into a blackout.

by Vivian Belik

It’s a scene that’s all too familiar to most Yukoners: it’s the middle of a cold, dark winter and suddenly you’re plunged into a blackout.

A few hours without heat or light is enough to remind most people how reliant we are on the lakes and streams that feed the Yukon River to provide a steady flow of hydroelectricity. The roiling waters of this river can generate up to 40 megawatts of energy as it moves through the Whitehorse dam. That’s enough energy to power one million 40-watt light bulbs.

So what happens if this stream of water becomes affected by climate change? That’s what the Yukon Research Centre and Yukon Energy have set out to find.

They’ve installed two monitoring stations in the Fantail River basin – the headwaters of the Yukon River – close to Atlin, BC. The stations will record information about meteorological conditions such as air temperature, precipitation and solar radiation, along with the amount of snow accumulated in the region.

There’s very little data that currently exists about this area, says Jeffrey Kavanaugh, a University of Alberta earth and atmosphere scientist who is working on the project. “One concern with changing climate is the amount of snowfall, and the timing and melt of the snowfall will change, so that means the throughput of water into the Yukon River might change as well,” he says.

Over the last few decades, the Atlin area has been experiencing warming of 0.2 to 0.3 degrees Celsius per decade. That warming means more rain and less snow, and the timing of the snowmelt is changing as well. But because there is very little data to compare what is happening today to what happened in the past, it’s difficult to estimate how this warming trend will affect Yukon River water flow in the future.

“There’s a gap in the records,” says Kavanaugh. “It’s a pretty big unknown, which is concerning if you’re basing a lot of power generation on water that comes from this region.” Particularly if you consider that the Whitehorse dam represents 58 per cent of the total amount of energy Yukoners use throughout the year.

But climate change could actually turn out to be a boon for power generation in the territory. Changes to weather patterns could mean more precipitation for the Yukon, says Kavanaugh. Warmer temperatures cause increased evaporation from the ocean, bringing more rain and snowfall into the interior. And more rain and snowfall means more runoff in the spring to feed hydro dams.

The two monitoring stations will track changes in the weather in the medium term as well as capturing long-term climate changes. The equipment will be able to tease out oscillations in the weather from events like the El Nino and La Nina cycles, weather patterns that cause multi-year changes in temperature and precipitation patterns.

Such information allows researchers to more accurately monitor variations in weather that are a result of climate change. It also gives them the opportunity to track changes in nearby glaciers.

Last summer, hikers who passed through the Sloko Inlet trail near Atlin discovered that a normally fast-flowing riverway had been turned into a muddy field strewn with house-sized icebergs.

The area is normally fed by water from the Llewellyn Glacier, which has been retreating for the last 60 years, and the Juneau Icefield. Llewellyn Glacier has now retreated as much as eight kilometres, and when that happens water starts flowing in different directions. The shift in the flow of glacial meltwater last year meant that areas that were normally wet became dry while drier areas became flooded with water.

“The glaciers retreating is a response to long-term climate changes,” says Kavanaugh. “Most glaciers in the northern hemisphere are retreating – about 95 per cent of them.”

A study commissioned last year by Yukon Energy discovered that glaciers contribute up to 23 per cent of the total annual flow volume of the upper Yukon River (snowfall makes up 44 per cent and rain contributes the remaining 33 per cent). The Llewellyn Glacier makes up a dominant portion of the flow that comes from the region’s glaciers.

But Yukoners shouldn’t worry that a retreating glacier will mean a reduction in hydroelectricity, says Kavanaugh. “These are important reservoirs of water, but they’ll likely remain important reservoirs for some time. They’re not disappearing all that rapidly,” he says.

“Down the road that resource will change and we’ll see a few per cent decrease in that flow. But it will remain a resource for quite some time.” As the Llewellyn Glacier retreats, it will continue to provide water to the region for decades and probably even centuries, Kavanaugh adds.

The second stage of the project will add three more monitoring stations, two at different elevations near the Llewellyn Glacier and the other near the Wheaton Glacier just south of Whitehorse. The idea is to the keep the weather stations in place as long as possible, says Kavanaugh.

“The longer we can let them stay, the more valuable the record becomes because the local impact of these multi-year, decadal changes can really only be clarified with long-term monitoring.”

This column is co-ordinated by the Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at www.taiga.net/yourYukon.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver talks to media on March 5, 2020. The Yukon government said Jan. 25 that it is disappointed in a decision by the federal government to send the Kudz Ze Kayah mining project back to the drawing board. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Territorial and federal governments at odds over Kudz Ze Kayah mine project

The federal government, backed by Liard First Nation, sent the proposal back to the screening stage

asdf
WYATT’S WORLD

Wyatt’s World for Jan. 27, 2021

An avalanche warning sigh along the South Klondike Highway. Local avalanche safety instructors say interest in courses has risen during the pandemic as more Yukoners explore socially distanced outdoor activities. (Tom Patrick/Yukon News file)
Backcountry busy: COVID-19 has Yukoners heading for the hills

Stable conditions for avalanches have provided a grace period for backcountry newcomers

Several people enter the COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Coast High Country Inn Convention Centre in Whitehorse on Jan. 26. The Yukon government announced on Jan. 25 that residents of Whitehorse, Ibex Valley, Marsh Lake and Mount Lorne areas 65 and older can now receive their vaccines. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Vaccine appointments available in Whitehorse for residents 65+

Yukoners 65 and older living in Whitehorse are now eligible to receive… Continue reading

The office space at 151 Industrial Road in Marwell. At Whitehorse city council’s Jan. 25 meeting, members voted to sign off on the conditional use approval so Unit 6 at 151 Industrial Rd. can be used for office space. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
Marwell move set for land and building services staff

Conditional use, lease approved for office space

The bus stop at the corner of Industrial and Jasper Road in Whitehorse on Jan. 25. The stop will be moved approximately 80 metres closer to Quartz Road. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
UPDATED: Industrial Road bus stop to be relocated

The city has postponed the move indefinitely

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment in Faro photgraphed in 2016. Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old building currently accommodating officers. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Faro RCMP tagged for new detachment

Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old… Continue reading

In a Jan. 18 announcement, the Yukon government said the shingles vaccine is now being publicly funded for Yukoners between age 65 and 70, while the HPV vaccine program has been expanded to all Yukoners up to and including age 26. (1213rf.com)
Changes made to shingles, HPV vaccine programs

Pharmacists in the Yukon can now provide the shingles vaccine and the… Continue reading

Parking attendant Const. Ouellet puts a parking ticket on the windshield of a vehicle in downtown Whitehorse on Dec. 6, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is hoping to write of nearly $300,000 in outstanding fees, bylaw fines and court fees, $20,225 of which is attributed to parking fines issued to non-Yukon license plates. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City of Whitehorse could write off nearly $300,000

The City of Whitehorse could write off $294,345 in outstanding fees, bylaw… Continue reading

Grants available to address gender-based violence

Organizations could receive up to $200,000

In this illustration, artist-journalist Charles Fripp reveals the human side of tragedy on the Stikine trail to the Klondike in 1898. A man chases his partner around the tent with an axe, while a third man follows, attempting to intervene. (The Daily Graphic/July 27, 1898)
History Hunter: Charles Fripp — gold rush artist

The Alaskan coastal town of Wrangell was ill-equipped for the tide of… Continue reading

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. While Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis is now setting his sights on the upcoming territorial election, other members of council are still pondering their election plans for the coming year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillors undecided on election plans

Municipal vote set for Oct. 21

Most Read