Permafrost thaw effects on stream flow in the lower Liard Valley, NWT

Project keywords: Permafrost thaw, streamflow, land-cover change

Name of project lead: W. Quinton

Project team/partners: For each collaborator please specify: Team member name, role, organization and contact information
W. Quinton (Laurier); M. Hayashi (Calgary); R. Schincariol (Western Ontario); J. Baltzer (Laurier); J. Kanigan (INAC); S. Kokelj (INAC); Jean-Marie River First Nation; Lidlii Kue First Nation; Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources; ENR – Forest Management Branch (Hay River).

Status: In Progress

Location: Scotty Creek, NWT.

Year and month project started: 2010

Anticipated completion year of project? 2014

Executive year of project (example, year 1 or 2 or 3…) 3

Brief project description:

Unprecedented warming and human disturbance in the zone of discontinuous permafrost has led to substantial permafrost melt in recent years. This has the potential to greatly alter the nature of water cycling within, and the volume and timing of runoff from the wetland- dominated drainage basins that characterise much of the discontinuous permafrost zone in the Northwest Territories (NWT) and elsewhere. The uncertainty regarding the mechanisms and rates of permafrost melt, the impact of this melt on water drainage and storage patterns and processes, and appropriate mitigation strategies, underscores the need for sound scientific research to provide the knowledge base required for informed and sustainable management of this resource. In response to this need, this research project will develop a suite of models for predicting the response of discontinuous permafrost to climate warming and human disturbance from oil and gas exploration and the consequent change in landcover and river flow regime in the NWT. This will be achieved by meeting the following short-term objectives: 1) map the spatial distribution of permafrost and its change over the past 50 years using aerial photography and satellite images, 2) develop new conceptual and mathematical models of hydrological processes, 3) develop a new permafrost model including the effects of human- induced disturbances, and 4) couple the hydrological model with the permafrost model to predict the spatial distribution of permafrost and the river flow regime under possible scenarios of climate change and human-induced disturbances. Annual User Community Workshops in Yellowknife will focus on interactive training of the new science-based predictive tools needed to properly manage northern water resources in the wetland-dominated regions with melting, discontinuous permafrost. The project will also partner with federal and territorial agencies, NGOs, industry and local stake-holders for the purpose of developing the NWT Water Strategy, the NWT Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, and other key federal-territorial joint initiatives concerning permafrost melt and water resources.

Significance of the results (rationale): / project linkages

Permafrost thaw can lead to dramatic land-cover and ecosystem changes. This introduces uncertainty about the future state and availability of water and forest resources. This research lessens this uncertainty by providing new knowledge and predictive tools for resource managers and industry.

Key deliverables and reporting: Link to needs of NWT

The proposed project was conceived from discussion with the GNWT and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). It will provide timely and critical scientific inputs to the four policy documents that are currently developed by the GNWT: a) Water Resources Management Strategy, b) Climate Change Impact and Adaptation Plan, c) Decho Forest Resource Assessment, and d) Guidance for the Protection of Land, Forest, and Wildlife – Oil and Gas Seismic Exploration. The long-term goal of this research project is to develop a suite of models for predicting the response of discontinuous permafrost in the Hay River Lowland to climate warming and human disturbance from oil and gas exploration, and the consequent change in landcover and river flow regime. This will be achieved by meeting the following short-term deliverables: 1) map the spatial distribution of permafrost and its change over the past 60 years using aerial photography and satellite images, 2) develop conceptual and mathematical models of hydrological processes, 3) develop a new model of permafrost to simulate its response to climate warming and human disturbances, and 4) couple the hydrological model with the permafrost model to predict the spatial distribution of permafrost and the river flow regime under possible scenarios of climate warming and human disturbance.

Engagement, training and capacity building

Much of this research has focussed on hydrological studies in the field. These studies were carried out with the support of local First Nations (LKFN, Jean-Marie River), as well as local government offices such as the Water Survey of Canada and the ENR offices in Fort Simpson. Local businesses also participated in the development and installation of key research infrastructure. Other logistical support was provided by the Hay River office of the ENR / Forest Management Branch in the form of helicopter time. In the last few years this research has focussed on the developing predictive tools based on the knowledge derived from the field studies. Most recently we have begun plans with local communities to co-develop a user interface for the predictive tools so that such tools can be easily applied to address local water management issues. Our plan is to engage in two-way training of these tools so that adjustment can be made to the models based on community feedback. These plans were developed through discussions with officials in local communities, such as D. Tsetso and George Low of the Dehcho First Nation. We are also in the process of raising funds to support the salary of an interface developer, and a community modeller to lead the co-development and two-way training with communities. Both positions will be based in Yellowknife.

Links to WSIPlan and NWT Science Agenda

Key to Success 2.1 H (Water Stewardship Strategy)

Enhance, where needed, the existing water quality and quantity monitoring network (surface and groundwater) in the NWT.
Key to Success 2.1 I (Water Stewardship Strategy)
Develop and implement collaborative research and monitoring programs for environmental stressors that can contribute to cumulative effects on NWT watersheds.

– 1.1; 2.1 – informally; 2.1B, C, D, F, G, H, I.

Key project tasks for next year (work plan pieces – research)

Key project tasks for next year (work plan pieces – engagement, training and capacity building)

Hire local LKFN band members, meet with LKFN, Jean-Marie FN and Trout Lake FN band leaders, continue to attempt to raise funds for knowledge mobilization and application at the local level.

Published Papers 2 papers