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The Canadian Arctic: An Environment to safeguard

In honour of Arctic Science Month, we check in with three Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) scientists; Chris Derksen, Sandy Steffen and Hayley Hung, who carry out research in the North. They share why it is so important to study the Arctic.

“We know that climate change is more pronounced in the North, and in all Northern regions around the world,” says Chris Derksen. “We have a responsibility as Canadians to have knowledge on how and why this is happening.” As a research scientist at ECCC, Derksen studies snow cover and sea ice across the Arctic using satellite remote sensing. He has also conducted fieldwork in several Northern regions. He explains that for the people who live in the North, amplified Arctic warming has already had an impact on their day-to-day lives, including how they travel and access traditional hunting grounds.

“It’s very clear that what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” says Derksen. One change of note is the loss of sea ice, which has the potential to impact climate and weather outside the Arctic. There is also potential for global economic and ecological impacts from the changing Arctic. “As government scientists, our job is to provide credible climate change science to the government of the day,” he says. “We need to know what is going on in the Arctic and understand how changes are likely to happen in the future so policy is prepared to adapt and address those changes at the federal government level.”

Sandy Steffen has also spent a lot of time in the Arctic for her fieldwork as an Atmospheric Mercury Specialist. She notes experiencing firsthand the incredible changes that are consistent with amplified warming, like the big swings in temperature and the changing sea ice, since beginning her research career in 1995. “It’s an indication of what’s expected to happen to our world in the future and that is really important to understand,” she says. “It’s a pristine environment, and you can see where we are having an impact.”

Steffen’s research focuses on how mercury enters the Arctic region. As there are no sources of human-made mercury in the Arctic, it travels in the air from faraway places in North America, Asia and Europe. Once it arrives in the North, it chemically transforms and deposits into the environment where it can become a threat to wildlife and a potential health issue for Canadians. Steffen puts her science into action as part of a mercury experts group that works to assess the effectiveness of the Minamata Convention on Mercury, a global treaty designed to decrease impacts of human-made mercury on the environment and human health.

Hayley Hung often travels to the Arctic with Steffen. Hung is a research scientist who studies Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), another class of harmful chemicals. POPs can be found in industrial and commercial chemicals, including pesticides, and can be released in exhaust from vehicles and from the heating of homes. They are classified as persistent because they can stay in the environment for a very long time without degrading. There are few human-made sources of POPs in the Arctic, but they are carried there by the wind and ocean currents. Once POPs enter the colder temperatures of the Arctic air, they have a tendency to condense and enter the Arctic environment where, over time, they can build up in concentration and cause adverse health effects in animals and human beings who live off the land. “That’s a concern to us,” says Hung.

Hung notes that these chemicals are emitted all over the world and carried over international borders by the wind, so a global effort was required to control them through a multilateral and environmental agreement; the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. Hung works to monitor POPs in Arctic air over long time periods to see if the concentrations are declining. “As scientists, we support the regulatory process by studying long term trends of these pollutants,” she explains. “We assess whether the regulations are effective so that these chemicals are not harming the environment anymore. Now that we have ‘turned off the tap’, did the concentrations decrease in the Arctic?”

For Hung, witnessing the connection the people of the North have to the land inspires her to continue her work. “The future is unknown, but we do know that the Arctic is warming. We are trying to help and to safeguard our environment.”

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