Local researcher studies climate change in northern Labrador

·4 min read

WATERLOO — A University of Waterloo researcher is working with Indigenous residents of northern Labrador to confirm what those Nunatsiavut and Nunavik elders had already observed: Shrubs are taking over the Torngat Mountains National Park

The Nunatsiavut and Nunavik people spend much of their time out on the land and co-manage the park. About 10 years ago, they noticed an increase in shrub growth throughout the area.

They brought this to the attention of park staff who work with universities across the country.

Emma Davis is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability. She is studying the increase in shrubs in the park from her home in Waterloo.

Davis says the shrub growth is a sign of warming in the area, and it will have some profound effects on the animals there, as well as the ability of people to get around. She and her team just published an article about their findings in the journal Ecosystems.

Indigenous knowledge can be key to understanding changes on the land, Davis says.

“The fact that (the research) was motivated by (Indigenous knowledge) highlights how useful and beneficial looking to original knowledge holders can be for understanding changes to the environment.

“Whether it’s in our region or in the Torngats, it doesn’t really matter. There’s people with really good stories to share, so it’s important to try and listen when you can.”

Her work combines analyzing satellite remote sensing of the landscape over time with findings in the field, like counting growth rings on shrub samples.

Davis and her team found shrubs have been becoming more predominant over the past 40 years.

“Shrubs, unlike around here, are really the biggest plants that are growing up there,” says Davis. “So because they’re so much taller than all the other plants, they’re able to have a really big influence on their surroundings.”

The effects of rapid climate change have an impact on the animals as well as the Nunatsiavut and Nunavik peoples who live largely off the land, Davis says.

The larger and denser shrubs trap more snow, which warms the ground and thaws permafrost. Though animals like caribou can eat some shrubs, if the shrubs outcompete other plants, this could reduce caribou food sources.

“The caribou who live there actually have very, very small populations, so any changes to the environment that might negatively impact caribou is definitely a cause for concern,” says Davis. The caribou, in turn, are a traditional food source for the local people.

The increased shrub growth also makes it harder for the Nunatsiavut and Nunavik to move across the land on foot or snowmobile.

Bears tend to hide in shrubby areas, which can be a safety concern.

Davis’ first field season in the Torngat Mountains was cancelled this year due to COVID, so she has been analyzing data from her home.

Annual temperatures in the area have increased by nearly half a degree each decade, or nearly two degrees C total in 40 years, Davis says. Winter temperatures have increased by almost 2.5 degrees C over 40 years or 0.62 degrees C each decade.

That’s significantly higher than the global average: global average temperatures have risen 0.18 degrees C per decade since 1981, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“The magnitude of change is pretty remarkable, in this region in particular,” says Davis.

These rapidly increasing temperatures are bringing several big changes, including the decline of sea ice, changes in plant growth and thawing permafrost. All these factors interact with each other, she says.

“It is definitely disheartening, because my day-to-day work is kind of involved in reflecting on how dire things are,” says Davis. “One way to deal with that is looking at actions close to home that you can take that will make a difference and knowing that without studying these changes then there would be no way to address them or bring them to anyone’s attention.”

Leah Gerber’s reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. The funding allows her to report on stories about the Grand River Watershed. Email lgerber@therecord.com

Leah Gerber, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Waterloo Region Record