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Coles Notes on climate change

The footprint of Yukon's glaciers shrank by 22 per cent over the past 50 years. As far as glacial bleed-outs go, that's second only to the shrinking glaciers of Patagonia and Alaska.

The footprint of Yukon’s glaciers shrank by 22 per cent over the past 50 years.

As far as glacial bleed-outs go, that’s second only to the shrinking glaciers of Patagonia and Alaska.

“That’s quite astounding,” said Lia Johnson, a climate change information analyst with Yukon College’s Northern Climate Exchange.

The finding was quietly announced by University of Alberta researchers in an academic journal last year. As far as climate change research goes, it’s a drop in the bucket, and easily missed.

That’s why Yukon College’s Northern Climate Exchange has provided a handy cheat-sheet. They’ve summarized the findings of more than 175 papers prepared over the past eight years.

The results are found in a compendium, available online, that describes everything from the breeding patterns of Kluane’s red squirrels to the growing prevalence of landslides, floods and wildfires.

No region in Northern Canada has warmed as quickly as the Yukon has over the past half-century. During that time, the annual average temperature has risen by 2.2 degrees Celsius. The average winter temperature rose by 4.5 degrees Celsius.

The Yukon hasn’t seen temperatures rise so quickly since the start of the Holocene epoch, 10,000 years ago.

As this trend continues, the territory will continue to see fewer extremely cold days, and more extremely warm ones. Most of the territory will see more rain and snow.

The combined melting of glaciers in the Yukon and Alaska has contributed to nine per cent of the world’s sea-level raise over the past 50 years. That’s twice the impact of the melting Greenland ice sheet.

Herschel Island will continue to slump into the sea. As permafrost thaws, landslides have become more frequent.

Four-fifths of Zelma Lake on Old Crow Flats drained in the summer of 2007, after rapid rainfall eroded a land barrier separating the lake from the surrounding watershed. The resulting discharge could have filled 2,300 Olympic-size swimming pools, and diminished a popular hunting and fishing area.

Residents of Beaver Creek are spotting deer, lynx and cougars for the first time. New plants have been identified. Birds are migrating north earlier in the spring and heading south later in the autumn.

The size of a nearby caribou herd has plummeted. Residents wonder if decreasing snowfall plays to coyotes’ favour for hunting. Less rain and snow in this region, bucking the territorial trend, also means smaller berry crops.

Thunderstorms are occurring at unusual times. Predicting the weather is more difficult. Warmer temperatures means it’s more difficult to dry meat.

Some species are adapting. Red squirrels near Kluane Lake are giving birth 18 days earlier than they did one decade ago.

Researchers believe the squirrels are evolving to breed earlier, as offspring born early are more likely to survive. Kluane’s red squirrel population has managed to keep pace with climate change, but researchers warn other critters may not fare so well.

In Kluane National Park, elders hear fewer birds. The Arctic ground squirrel population has dipped, while mice and voles are thriving.

Kathleen Lake’s kokanee salmon have declined since 2002. Researchers worry warmer water harms the fishs’ ability to reproduce. Similar concerns are being expressed about the territory’s lake trout.

The Yukon River’s chinook salmon aren’t keen on warmer waters, either. A study from 1999 to 2002 found a greater proportion of diseased fish during the second half of the run, corresponding with increasing water temperatures.

The sickest fish were also found during the warmest summers; the healthiest were found during the coolest.

White spruce in the Kluane Range are taller, and growing in denser stands than they did a half-century ago. But they will have to contend with more frequent infestations of spruce beetle, which has gained a firmer foothold, thanks to warmer winter temperatures that allow them to thrive.

Polar bears may be wiped out along the southern Beaufort Sea during the 21st century, as sea ice, which the animals depend upon as a platform to hunt seals, melts.

The Porcupine caribou herd’s recent decline has been largely attributed to overhunting, but climate change may also play a part.

Warmer weather means icier springs. That makes it tougher for caribou to travel and get at lichen.

Climate change may also have spurred a vast fire across the Eagle Plains area, depriving the herd of more food.

Dawson City and Mayo are expected to see as much as 60 per cent more wildfires over the next three decades.

Dawson City can also expect the Klondike River to flood more frequently, as it did in 2002, when a December warm spell created an icejam that casued low-lying areas to flood.

And Dawson’s Palace Grand Theatre is perched on permafrost that’s on the verge of thawing. So are parts of Saint Andrew’s Church - such as its tilting bell tower. Both buildings are at risk to becoming damaged.

Climate change affects miners, too. Minto mine had to make several emergency discharges of untreated water into the Yukon River in 2008 and 2009 when it was hit with an unexpected deluge of spring runoff.

Thawing permafrost, meanwhile, caused the tailings dumps of the now-abandoned Clinton Creek asbestos mine north of Dawson City to fail in 1974, causing a creek to dam and destroying aquatic life.

By 2050, Whitehorse is expected to see winter temperatures warm by 3.3 degrees Celsius to 5.4 degrees Celsius. More snow will fall in the winter, and the city will be more prone to floods and fires during the spring and summer.

There’s good news for gardeners, at least: the growing season will have extended by 18 to 25 days. And later freezeups and earlier breakups on the Yukon River may help Yukon Energy produce more hydroelectricity in the winter.

If temperatures rise by five degrees Celsius, essentially all the permafrost near Wolf Creek is expected to thaw. Only 10 per cent would be left near Ruby Range. Steep, south-facing slopes will be the first to go.

The climate change compendium is intended to be a “living document,” which will be updated as more papers are published on climate change’s impact on the Yukon, said Johnson.

The compendium comes in two forms: a full-length version, suitable for researchers, and a summary that’s an easier read for the layperson. Eventually, Johnson hopes to see it become a searchable database.

Contact John Thompson at