How vulnerable — or resilient — are northern ecosystems to a changing climate? And what does that mean for the people who depend on them? To find out, an ambitious research project is combining NASA remote-sensing technology with the expertise of Indigenous hunters and scientists in the field.
The Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment, or NASA ABoVE, focuses on ecosystems in Alaska, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and western Nunavut. “This immense area is warming rapidly,” says Mike Gill, a scientist who has worked at Polar Knowledge Canada, a partner in the project. “Indigenous people there are feeling the changes now, and they’re looking for answers to some fundamental questions. Will there be enough caribou to harvest in the future? Will forest fires become more of a threat? How will climate change affect the ice roads that some communities depend on for supplies, and the traditional winter routes to their hunting and fishing grounds?” These are among the questions that drive the project.
Indigenous people in the North are feeling the changes now, and they’re looking for answers to some fundamental questions.
NASA scientists are gathering data with sophisticated remote-sensing instruments on satellites and aircraft, including NASA’s flying laboratory, a vintage DC-8 jetliner. One evening in August 2017, this unusual airplane spiralled slowly down from an altitude of 35,000 feet to fly low over Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, its myriad sensors gathering information to improve understanding of how greenhouse gases and carbon move between the surface and the atmosphere.
“NASA has some of the best remote-sensing capabilities in the world, and the Canadian Space Agency is also making its satellite data available for the project,” says Gill. “But you need to know what is happening on the ground to interpret the data from satellites or aircraft correctly. That’s what we call ‘ground-truthing,’ and it can only come from experts in the field.” Those experts include about 100 Canadian scientists, as well as Indigenous hunters, who are skilled at spotting ecological changes because they’re keen observers and spend a great deal of time on the land.
NASA AboVE, which began in 2015, will gather a massive amount of data over its 10-year lifespan. This will be made freely available to the universities, research institutes and governments that are partners in the project. They’ll also have access to a NASA supercomputer to help them analyze the data. The result will be a much better understanding of the changes we can expect to see in the North — and information tools that northern communities and governments can use as they make plans for adapting to those changes.
This is the latest in a blog series on polar issues and research presented by Canadian Geographic and Polar Knowledge Canada, a Government of Canada agency with a mandate to advance Canada's knowledge of the Arctic and strengthen Canadian leadership in polar science and technology. Learn more at canada.ca/en/polar-knowledge