Changing Cold Environments: A Canadian Perspective
Eighteen years ago we edited a volume called Canada’s Cold Environments. It was a typeof regional physical geography of northern Canada and its mountains. In its preface we set the tone by noting that ‘coldness is a pervasive Canadian characteristic, part of the nation’s culture and history’. In spite of many indications that Canada has become a warmer place since 1993, coldness remains a pervasive and distinct Canadian characteristic. There is, however, sufficient change in the hydroclimate, and indeed in the ‘oekumene’ of Canada as a whole (those parts of Canada that are inhabited by permanent residents), to warrant a fresh look at Canada’s changing physical environment. Moreover, the Canadian experience is a useful barometer against which similar changes in the other regions of the northern Polar World can be compared.
Whether or not the globe as a whole is experiencing a long term warming trend fuelled by increasing greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere or a cyclic and short term warming trend caused by geophysical drivers such as solar emission or changing Sun–Earth relations is a mega-problem upon which we are not willing or competent to comment. What we do know is that Canada’s cold regions, and especially its arctic regions, are experiencing rates of warming that are unprecedented in the past millennium. We also know that human demands on the natural resources of Canada’s cold regions are growing apace.
The most obvious changes relate to shrinking glaciers, reductions in annual sea ice extent, and longer duration of ice-free periods on rivers and lakes. These are physical realities that can be readily observed and measured. Others are more subtle. But these changes coincide with a period of increasing global demographic pressure and intensifying resource demand at a time when it is becoming clear that globalization is upon us. In addition, the sovereignty of Canada’s Arctic may soon be questioned as the possibility of an ice-free sea route between Europe and the emerging economies of Southeast Asia becomes increasingly a reality. The net effect of these accelerating processes is to focus new and urgent attention on Canada’s cold environments.
We have assembled 14 experts, in contrast with just nine in our earlier book. All have extensive Canadian experience. The new topics which now require separate chapter treatment are sea ice, river and lake ice, remotely sensed imagery and the ways in which the northern indigenous peoples (in this case the Inuit) interact with this rapidly changing environment. We have also given more space to ecological changes and provide deeper understanding of the glacial and postglacial histories of our cold environments. In this way we hope to counteract some of the more emotional responses to contemporary environmental change. It is our conviction that environments have always changed and continue to evolve. In fact, as a society, we can even be grateful for the rapid environmental changes of the last 2.5 million years (the Quaternary); many would argue that such changes have been partially responsible for stimulating the evolution of Homo sapiens. Thus, our emphasis upon current and future change indicates our own belief in our continued evolution.
In this volume we, and our contributors, have attempted to provide an authoritative, yet readable scientific statement about the nature of Canada’s changing cold environments. We have not attempted a comprehensive geographic coverage. Instead, we have focused on the distinctive attributes of Canada’s changing cold environments. Their temporal and spatial variability is central, as is the interaction of northern peoples with those environments. As in our earlier volume, the constraints and opportunities created by coldness for human activity are also considered.
We have both seen a progressive evolution of Canada as a pre-eminent cold-climate nation over the last 40 years. Thus, our objectives in undertaking an assessment of this change have been threefold. The first has been to provide insight into the ways in which biophysical processes are influenced by coldness at a range of scales. The second has been to provide a biophysical context for understanding the human geography of Canada. The third has been to examine current rates of environmental change and, if projected into the future, how those rates of change will affect Canada’s cold environments.
We wish to thank the authors of the individual chapters for their willingness to join us in this venture and to share their experience and wisdom. Needless to say, not all of them provided material in a timely and efficient manner. But they have all achieved, in our opinion, the desired mix of authoritative information and accessible style. Our cartographers, Ole Heggen and Eric Leinberger, deserve special recognition for the quality of the figures and images.
Any lack of coherence and errors of fact or interpretation are our responsibility and we request your indulgence.
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