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Laurier researchers assemble holistic picture of history and future of climate change

November 15, 2006

Source: Wilfrid Laurier University

Award-winning Laurier researchers are looking at Canada’s northern ecosystems from both a human and natural science approach – providing a holistic picture of the history and the future of climate change.

Sonia Wesche, a geography and environmental studies PhD candidate working with Derek Armitage and Scott Slocombe, is focusing her research on the human element of northern ecosystems, specifically, how traditional knowledge and social capital can be used to improve both the understanding of and the response to ecosystem changes. Wesche received the Canadian Northern Studies Trust (CNST)’s award of greatest value for her efforts: the $10,000 Canadian Polar Commission Scholarship, which recognizes a doctoral student engaged in interdisciplinary studies with a northern focus.

With a natural science approach, Suzanne Jarvis is recreating hundreds of years of Peace River history, examining lake sediments to reconstruct its hydrology. Jarvis’ research was recognized by CNST’s $5,000 Royal Canadian Geographic Society Studentship in Northern Geography, given to outstanding students at both the master’s and doctoral levels whose research relates to northern geography. Jarvis is a master’s student of Laurier’s Brent Wolfe and John Johnston of UW earth sciences.

"The CNST scholarships are extremely competitive at the national level," explained Brent Wolfe, who chairs the Laurier Northern Studies Committee and holds one of six Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Northern Research Chairs. "There are only between seven and 10 scholarships in different categories each year, so it is a significant accomplishment that two are coming to Laurier."

Both Wesche’s and Jarvis’ research evolved from Wolfe’s Northern Research Chair program on the Peace-Athabasca and Slave River Deltas – northern freshwater ecosystems under increasing pressure from climate variability and industrial development.

Their combined results will not only contribute to understanding the driving forces behind past hydrological and ecological changes and the impact of these changes on indigenous populations, but they will also help researchers to anticipate future change and prepare communities to better respond to it.

Northern populations that rely on water-based resources are now struggling to cope with and adapt to extremes in climatic and hydrological systems. Wesche hopes her research, combined with scientific projections, will help to develop community capacity-building strategies and identify policy directions.

"The habitat diversity and wildlife resources of the Slave River Delta are of central importance to the livelihood strategies and socio-cultural integrity of the indigenous population living in and around Fort Resolution in the Northwest Territories," emphasized Wesche. "My research aims to understand how the natural ecosystem functions and responds to various environmental stressors, while looking at the value of traditional knowledge and social capital in understanding human capacity to respond to change."

Wesche is looking through the eyes of the community members – building trust and respect and collaborating with members to build her research framework. This approach ensures that the results of her work will be of significant value to other Mackenzie Basin communities experiencing ecological change. Through community collaboration, her research directions have been extended to include the role of social capital in identifying, measuring and building adaptive capacity.

Jarvis’ research will also have practical implications. Along with an interdisciplinary group that incorporates Laurier geography and UW earth sciences and biology researchers, Jarvis is investigating the flood frequency of the Peace River, which is an important hydrological feature of the Peace-Athabasca Delta. "This area is important because of the diverse wildlife habitat and cultural heritage," explained Jarvis. "Most of the delta is located within Wood Buffalo National Park, and it is one of Canada’s UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] World Heritage Sites."

While measured discharge methods can only provide information about the past 50 years, Jarvis’ lake-sediment method allows her to reconstruct the river’s flood events well beyond the instrumental record. By examining lake sediment cores that contain material deposited during the Medieval Warm Period, Little Ice Age and post-Little Ice Age interval, Jarvis hopes to determine how the river and the delta have responded to climate change over the past 1000 years and to infer future changes. Her research results will inform both Wood Buffalo National Park management and the First Nations community of Fort Chipewyan, who use the delta for hunting and transportation.

Both Wesche and Jarvis were personally honoured to be selected for the CNST awards; however, they also recognize the benefits the awards will bring to their research.

"The focus on traditional knowledge is more recently recognized to be of academic value," said Wesche. "This award links me to the ACUNS [Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies] community and facilitates engagement with a network of others doing similar research."

"The scholarship focuses on enhancing and promoting research in northern Canada," explained Jarvis. "It recognizes the importance of water resources and the impact of climate changes."

Lori Chalmers-MorrisonPublic Affairs



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