Climate change makes pond scum a hot topic

“The models are looking very bad for the Arctic in the future”



The sexy science of climate change is a topic powerful enough to draw a crowd to a lecture on lake sediment and pond algae on a Friday night.

In a climate where Al Gore has reemerged as a science-touting celebrity with his documentary An Inconvenient Truth, John Smol, a professor at Queen’s University and a Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change, admits he gets a buzz from his relevant research.

Smol and his fellow scientist and half-brother, Jules Blais, spoke to an attentive audience of about 25 at the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum on July 28. They fit their specific areas of research into the larger picture of the study of climate change.

Smol, the chattier of the brother scientists, admitted that he is sometimes referred to as an alarmist, but that his 23 years of studying the High Arctic in all circumpolar regions have taught him that the situation is dire.

“If anything we have been overly optimistic,” he said. “The models are looking very bad for the Arctic in the future. We’ve passed thresholds, which is serious because once you’ve passed thresholds you can’t go back.”

While Smol fears for the future, his work pieces together the past. By taking core samples of sediment from the bottom of Arctic lakes, he and his team of researchers can read the samples like the pages of a history book.

“Almost everything that lives in a lake is leaving a fossilized footprint there,” he said. By looking at the layers of fossils, metals, pollen and insects in the sediment Smol can tell what the landscape has been like over time, how it has changed and how quickly that has happened.

Since Arctic research has only been happening for 50 years, this provides a much-needed time-frame for current conditions.

While Smol concerns himself with what’s old at the bottom of the lake, Blais is more interested in what’s new. He is tracking the pathways of man-made contaminants that have made their way into the Arctic lakes and environment.

“The chemicals that reach the Arctic from far away are persistent,” said Blais. He adds that although the dose makes the poison, the pollutants that make it all the way north are so persistent that small doses can cause toxicity.

The focus of his study this summer on Cape Vera on Devon Island, was 11,000 breeding pairs of northern fulmar. The birds ingest contaminants through their food in the ocean and transport them back to their nesting area.

The contaminants become concentrated in lakes and ponds near their nesting sites and cause a slick coating of bright green algae to cover the ponds, while other ponds away from the nesting area are unaffected.

“It’s an ecologically important phenomenon,” said Blais. “This is a pathway that is not considered in the current models. There are a lot of variations of contaminants in the Arctic that we can’t explain – perhaps this can shed some light.”

Shedding light on all of the unknowns in the relatively unexplored Arctic is what the brothers’ work is about. “It’s an easy place to do work because whatever you find out, it’s new,” said Smol.

But in the minute details of each research project in the Arctic, it all stems from the effects of warming that melts the ice and is rapidly changing the ecosystems across the north, according to Smol. While each research project studies a specific aspect of the Arctic environment, these multiple stresses accumulate as part of the domino effect of warming.

“The science we do has strong implications that affect policy and the economy,” said Smol. “But we have to include the cost of doing nothing.”

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