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Snow: What is it Good For…In the Arctic, absolutely everything!

December is Arctic Science Month! This is a great opportunity to highlight the variety of work Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) scientists are up to in Northern Canada. Stay tuned and follow our social media channels to learn more.

This year’s Arctic Science Month kicks off with a profile of an ECCC research scientist who is no stranger to the North: Chris Derksen. Derksen has been working in the Arctic for 25 years.

His first trip to the Arctic was as an undergraduate student at the University of Waterloo. “I’ve always been fascinated by the Arctic. When I got the opportunity to work there as a university co-op student, I couldn’t get enough of it,” said Derksen.

Since joining ECCC, he has been back to the Arctic many times. Derksen co-authored a research paper Snow and Climate: Feedbacks, Drivers, and Indices of Change, published earlier this year in the journal Current Climate Change Reports. The paper looks at the impact of climate change on snow and the important role that snow plays in the global climate system.

Climate Change and Snow

Derksen and his team use satellite imagery to collect data on snow. For example, they examine the extent of snow cover in a particular region of the Arctic and how it changes over time. This information is useful to help researchers understand snow’s vital role for plants and animals in the Canadian Arctic.

Canada’s Changing Climate Report, released earlier this year showed that the Arctic is warming faster than most places in Canada. Derksen’s research confirms that there is less snow cover across the Arctic overall, particularly during the spring. Rising temperatures cause Arctic snow to melt earlier, and soil to warm at a faster pace, contributing to further warming.

Snow does not just provide an opportunity to hop on a toboggan or slap on your skis, it is also essential to the ecosystem of the North. The snow loss in the Arctic is concerning to Derksen. Snow is a great insulator and it allows animals to seek refuge and hibernate in the winter. It also protects vegetation and insects during cold periods.

While temperature is the main factor explaining snow loss in the Arctic, increased precipitation is another consequence of our changing climate. The combination of warmer temperatures and more precipitation in winter means more frequent rain events when there is snow on the ground. The combination of rain and snow creates ice layers in the snow pack that change snow composition. The ice layers create problems for wildlife such as caribou as it makes their foraging more difficult.

The future of snow research

As the Arctic is changing, scientists need data to track changes in snow cover. ECCC and the Canadian Space Agency are collaborating to develop a new satellite dedicated to monitoring snow. This satellite will provide scientists more detailed information on snow cover across Canada. For example, it will tell scientists the depth of the snow and how much water it contains. This enhanced data will provide scientists like Derksen with a greater understanding of the impact of climate change on snow – an important natural resource to Canadians.

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