In Labrador, snow depth is important information for both scientists trying to track climate change and Inuit who travel into remote areas to hunt or collect firewood.
But the region’s sparse network of automated weather stations is making it difficult to get accurate information on changing trends in snow, researchers say. That can lead to underestimating the warming trend happening across this rugged, northeastern corner of Canada, according to one Labrador-raised geographer who specializes in understanding the impacts of climate change.
“Our ability to monitor snow in Northern Canada is deplorable. And it’s such an important variable for everything,” said Robert Way, an assistant professor in the geography and planning department at Queen’s University in Kingston who is of Inuit descent. “When you compare us to the U.S. or Western Europe, we’re pretty far behind. When we have these kind of critical gaps, it’s a problem.”
Snow depth used to be recorded manually throughout Labrador, often using volunteers with measuring sticks who reported their findings. That work is now done by automated systems using ultrasonic sensors, which some scientists say isn’t always reliable and is difficult to compare with historical records.
In some cases, it has led to huge gaps in the data on snow trends. Cartwright, a coastal community in southern Labrador, had a manual weather station that recorded snow levels since 1934. It switched to an automated system in 2015, but none of those measurements has been verified or uploaded by Environment Canada for research purposes yet.
Dr. Way argues Environment Canada overestimated its ability to use satellite data and weather-modelling technology to replace on-the-ground measurements. For those who go out on the land on snowmobile, it means practical information that affects travel routes and safety is sometimes seen as unreliable. Understanding snow depth is also critical when studying migration and feeding patterns among animals such as caribou, an important traditional food source in Labrador.
“For a lot of northern, Indigenous communities, snow depth is really important," Dr. Way said. “We’ve seen about a month less snow on the ground over time in Labrador, but we don’t really know if we can trust that observation because there’s a huge asterisk over it."
In the far north of Labrador, two weather stations are installed on top of mountains, which Dr. Way says doesn’t provide much useful information about conditions in places where people actually travel.
“We have less observing stations now than we did in the nineties,” he added. “We’ve allowed our weather network to get into this state, and it’s sometimes difficult to understand why."
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