CRI at the centre of first international initiative on Arctic freshwater biodiversity

This week Fairbanks, Alaska is hosting the 2016 Arctic Science Summit, an annual gathering of international scientists and policymakers who advance Arctic research. The Summit will feature a special session on the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program, in which the Canadian Rivers Institute (CRI) is playing a prominent role in the assessment of Arctic freshwater biodiversity and future monitoring.

Dr. Joseph Culp, CRI Science Director, and Dr. Jennifer Lento, CRI Associate, are right in the middle of a very ambitious project to bring together the tremendous amount of data collected in and about the Arctic over many years. This first international initiative is precedent setting and timely as agencies, organizations and communities around the globe work together to better understand the trends in Arctic ecosystems under pressure from rapidly changing climate conditions.

Dr. Culp is the co-Chair of the Freshwater Steering Group of the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program (CBMP), one of the four cornerstone programs in the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) working group under the Arctic Council - a governing body with representatives from most arctic countries and that makes recommendations for management in the Arctic. CAFF’s mandate is to “address the conservation of Arctic biodiversity, and to communicate its findings to the governments and residents of the Arctic, helping to promote practices which ensure the sustainability of the Arctic’s living resources."

Dr. Lento is the Secretariat of ten 10-member expert group with representation from Canada, Sweden, Finland, Greenland/Denmark, Iceland, Norway and the United States (and soon Russia). Her role as the Secretariat started as supporting the Committee with logistics of meetings and early report writing, which has since developed into helping coordinate the activities of the expert scientist group, organizing data collection, ensuring proper meta-data and reporting.  Dr. Lento says, “it is an amazing experience. I get to travel to international meetings and work closely with international scientists.”

The goal of the program, along with the work of colleagues in the three other programs (Marine, Terrestrial and Coastal), is to assess the circumpolar Arctic’s state of biodiversity for the first time.

The work began in 2010 by defining a monitoring plan.  Published in 2012, the Arctic Freshwater Biodiversity Monitoring Plan outlines a framework to facilitate circumpolar assessments by providing Arctic countries with a structure and a set of guidelines for initiating and developing monitoring activities that employ common approaches and indicators. The program has now begun its first assessment, which will be conducted by national freshwater expert networks that include: prominent Arctic freshwater researchers from government and academia, Traditional Ecological Knowledge experts and members of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists. The Freshwater Steering Group is coordinating these expert networks in the collection of existing data – data from all over the circumpolar region, collected by different agencies, organizations, with different protocols in different countries. By the end of April the team will start new analysis of what they have collected.

The Freshwater team data collection focuses on rivers and lakes and attempting to assess the status and trends of fish, benthic macroinvertebrates, benthic algae, phytoplankton, zooplankton, and macrophytes. These data, which will go towards the State of Arctic Freshwater Biodiversity Assessment, come from three time periods: contemporary (1950-present), post-industrial (1800-1949) and pre-industrial (paleolimnological data from 1800 back about 10,000 years).

While the data collection and organizing is still ongoing, Dr. Lento indicates that data contributed directly from Canadian Rivers Institute research are helping to identify impacts of warming in the western Canadian Arctic region, where permafrost slumping has been shown to have significant effects on freshwater systems as sediments are introduced in the previously crystal clear Arctic rivers.  Early analysis of long-term (over 50 years) fish population data in Iceland is also showing shifts related to changing climatic conditions.

Dr. Lento is excited about the how these data can be used in the future. She explains:

“This is a first step toward better monitoring and trend analysis in a more coordinated fashion among many countries who have an interest in the Arctic. This is a critical time; climate changes are happening fast in the Arctic, and the impacts of these changes are especially important to Indigenous people who rely on subsistence fisheries and where changes in permafrost has huge implications for local infrastructure – where to build and where not to build. As the Arctic continues to warm, the north may begin to look more like current temperate regions and may become more attractive to population growth, especially in Scandinavia where the Arctic is more accessible.  The trends in these other countries can help Canada contemplate the types of changes we might expect to see.”

The Freshwater team aims to produce a State of the Arctic Freshwater Biodiversity Report under the umbrella of CAFF by 2018 and are planning on distilling assessed data into a series of journal articles slated for publication in a special edition of a prominent journal.

Dr. Lento admits that this is a long and continuous process: “We hope that we will be able to undertake a State of the Arctic update report every five years or so that helps us to determine changes over time and our hope is to try to stay as visible as possible over the coming years.”  The aim is to review the program’s success about every 10 years.

The team is continuing to welcome data contributions. Contact Jennifer Lento for more information.