The Effect of Climate Change on Landscapes

The arctic and sub-arctic regions in Canada are dependent upon the cold climate to maintain many ecosystem functions. An increase in temperature can affect the permafrost foundation of this region. The permafrost layer is a permanently frozen ground layer. Permafrost controls plant communities and biomass production by regulating the moisture content, surface hydrology and temperature of the soil. The permafrost layer is an important function of the northern ecosystem. It is estimated that 50% of Canada’s land mass is comprised of permafrost (Nelson, 1989). Recent data indicates that permafrost is melting. As the temperature warms, the ground heats to a higher temperature and the seasonal frost layer increases.

Permafrost

Permafrost degradation may change the surface hydrology of the region. This is because the permafrost layer is an impermeable layer and tends to trap water. The severity of melting permafrost will vary amongst regions and flooding or drought may occur, depending on the surrounding drainage patterns. Melting permafrost, in areas of poor drainage, can increase the level of water within the soils. As the ground becomes over-saturated, surface flora such as trees will begin to die (Jorgenson et al., 2001). Permafrost degradation in well-drained areas will further increase the drainage properties of the area. This increase in drainage will lead to a decrease in the groundwater content of the area. In some areas, the inland lake and rivers that were once held in place by permafrost may drain. Animals may have to travel further to obtain drinking water and community members may have to travel further to engage in traditional activities such as hunting, fishing, and gathering. The draining of water may cause flooding and other problems downstream. As the water starts to percolate through the ground, it may start to increase the rate of melting of the permafrost layer, which will further exacerbate the problem. As water levels increase in the seasonal frost layer, the ground becomes saturated and unstable. Melting permafrost can cause the ground to shift and slump.

As the permafrost melts the overlying surface, the soil becomes unstable resulting in landslides and slumping in hilly areas. Sinkholes may develop due to an increase in groundwater flow and the increase in the depth of the seasonal frost layer. The melting of permafrost can threaten the structural design of houses, buildings, roads, water supplies, industry pipelines, and waste disposal structures in Indigenous communities. As permafrost melts, communities will become more susceptible to the impacts of a changing landscape. Homes and environmental landscapes may be threatened by increased incidences of sinkholes due to slumping. In areas with developments such as mines, the permafrost layer acts as an impermeable layer for mine tailings and landfill sites. The melting of the permafrost will increase the permeability of the region and can cause contamination to soil and water. Indigenous communities in the area may be impacted by contamination of the soil and/or water, either directly or through increased concentrations of contaminants in the plants and animals relied on by community members for subsistence economies.

Landslides

Landslides are also of concern because of changes in climate. According to Natural Resources Canada, wetter winters mean less stable slopes and more landslides. The biggest concern with landslides comes from what is known as ‘debris flows’, where watery slurries of mud, gravel, and boulders can travel at high speeds down steep slopes during heavy periods of rainfall. These flows will cause damage to infrastructure and will create hazardous situations for residents in the area. Damaging debris flows will become more common if our climate gets wetter with climate change (Natural Resources Canada, 2006). Indigenous communities in British Columbia, Alberta, and the Yukon seem to be most at risk for damage due to landslides, although areas in the Prairies, Ontario, and Labrador are also at risk. Due to Treaty and Indigenous Rights issues, many Indigenous communities wish to remain and are tied to their traditional territories. Relocation from these areas as a standard adaptation measure will be legally and culturally ineffective to address the climate change impacts on these landscapes. These isolated and non-mobile communities will be exposed to increased costs associated with structural re-engineering, maintenance, and specialized adaptation needs.

Effects of Temperature on Ice Cover

As temperatures increase, the amount of ice cover has started to decrease. A decrease in sea-ice cover would increase the extent and duration of open water. Open water can have an effect on Indigenous peoples’ travel, personal safety, and accessibility to communities and hunting grounds. An increase in open water seasons can have an impact on the traditional way of life for many northern communities. Changes in sea-ice cover will likely be the most significant direct impact of climate change on the Arctic coastline. The decline in depth and coverage of sea ice has serious implications for wildlife such as the polar bear, seal, and walrus and for marine hunters who depend on the sea ice as a means to safely hunt these and other animals (Natural Resources Canada, 2004). Open water means that many of the ice-dependent game, such as seals and walruses will not be available. Indigenous peoples who rely on these animals will need to find an alternative game to hunt in order to supply their community needs. In addition, the cohabitation of wildlife and Indigenous peoples becomes extremely stressed as the surrounding area of land decreases in size and stability.

Effect of Extreme Weather Events on Plains and Rangelands

In the plains and rangeland areas of North America, the climate is expected to warm, with an increase in unpredictable weather. As weather changes in these regions, the effects will vary in many regions, there will be an increase in drought due to the decreased frequency of precipitation events. There is also the possibility that some areas may experience an increase in the frequency in flooding events as the incidence of extreme storms increase. In the plains and rangeland areas of the North America region, agriculture is a part of the economy and livelihood of Indigenous people, as many Indigenous people participate in agricultural activities. Some are involved in large-scale crop production and livestock operation, while other communities are involved in these ventures through the lease of land and resources. There is currently little information on to what extent Indigenous agricultural activities contribute to the overall agricultural economy of Canada, however, Indigenous operations are at some risk from both drought conditions and increased hazards associated with flooding events. Drought conditions will impact water resources for many types of operations. Alternatively, extreme weather events and increased flooding risks crop damage and cause damage to agricultural infrastructures such as machinery, buildings, and livestock (Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, 2003.

Effect of Temperature on Forrest Distribution

Climate change has the potential to greatly influence the future health of Canada’s forest ecosystems by changing, not only forest fire, insect, and disease disturbance regimes, but also the overall distribution of forest types, and the productivity of forest resources. These changes will have important implications for the many social, cultural, and economic values Indigenous peoples associate with forests. Under a changing climate, warmer and drier conditions are expected to increase the frequency, duration, and intensity of forest fire outbreaks in many parts of Canada, especially in the continental interior (Flannigan et al, 2002). Increased incidences of forest fires would reduce the time it takes for certain species to grow back in some forested regions, resulting in a shift towards younger forests and a decrease in the number of trees and other plant species in the region (C-CIARN, 2006). In certain regions, defoliation by pests represents the most important factor controlling tree growth. The response of insects to climate change is expected to be rapid, such that even small climatic changes can have a significant impact on the distribution and abundance of certain species. Insects have short life cycles, high mobility, and high reproductive potentials, all of which allow them to quickly exploit new conditions and take advantage of new opportunities. For example, insect pests that are not currently a problem in much of Canada may migrate northward in a warmer climate.

Effects of Temperatures on Inland Wetland Areas

Wetlands are areas of shallow waters and upland environments that provide habitats for plants and animals species adapted to live under saturated conditions. Wetlands account for 14% of Canada’s total surface area and about 24% of the globe (IPCC, 2001). Climate change can have a great impact on these environments, in terms of structure and function. Wetland species are very susceptible to small changes in water levels. Changes in water levels can be attributed to the predicted changes in the water cycle. Wetlands, in general, have been predicted to decrease in area and in number as a result of climate change. Climate change can have significant impacts on wetland structure and function, primarily through alterations in hydrology, especially at water table level (IPCC, 2004). As water table levels drop due to decreases in precipitation and increases in evaporation, water flows into wetland areas will decrease. In certain areas, the draining of wetland areas can be seen as a positive effect of climate change. In areas of the northern boreal forests, winter roads are relied upon for transportation in and out of isolated communities. Muskeg area or bogs are a type of wetland that occurs in these regions. Muskeg is a challenging ecosystem to work in when constructing winter roads, as they do not completely freeze in times of milder weather. In many cases, winter road construction cannot be completed until these regions are frozen. If any of these areas are altered (dry out) then milder temperatures will no longer be an issue for regions with land-based winter roads. Indigenous communities throughout the country use wetlands as harvesting and cultural sites. Any impact of Treaty and Indigenous rights related to the cultural use of these wetlands and cultural sites could have devastating impacts directly on Indigenous communities’ ability to apply and exercise their rights. Any standard mitigation and adaptation strategies that might be adequate to address these climate change effects on wetland areas in non-Indigenous communities, will not be appropriate to protect Indigenous interests.

Impact of increases CO2 Concentrations in Forests and Grasslands

The effects of climate change will not only alter the plant dynamics of the forest ecosystem but will also have an effect on the animal species in the region. Climate change may affect the distribution, abundance, and diversity of animal species in a variety of ecosystems. Temperature increases may cause the introduction of new animal species or may alter habitats of current species in forested regions. An increase in fires, pests and a change in the distributions of plant species will only add more pressure on animal species that will rely on forests for their survival. Approximately 80% of the over 600 First Nations in Canada (over 480 First Nations) are located in the Boreal region (Boreal Forest Network, 2005). The First Nations of the Boreal Forest rely on this ecosystem for their livelihood, their culture, and their homes. The effects of climate change on forested regions in Canada will affect the livelihoods of Indigenous communities who rely on them. Subsistence or income-generating economies relying on forest products may be at risk because of forest loss due to increased forest fires, insects, and diseases. These economies may also be at risk because of changes in species distribution of vegetation species in the forest. Other possibilities exist where communities will benefit from increases in forest productivity due to changes in climate. However, positive impacts on the forest economy will only exist in disturbances from insects, fires, and extreme weather events are minimal in these regions. Indigenous peoples have a connection to the surrounding environment that is tied to their culture, their spirituality, their livelihood, and all aspects of their community. Climate change has the potential to impact this connection in terms of changing landscapes, altering ceremonial and medicinal plant and animal species, and by affecting other aspects of the traditional relationship with the surrounding environment.