Top Arctic scientists will gather in Vancouver this week to discuss everything from caribou populations to the high cost of food – but underlying it all is the unsettling speed with which the northern climate is changing.
"It's a real challenge," said Ross Brown, an Environment Canada researcher who is to speak this week at the ArcticNet conference.
Mr. Brown's presentation will attempt to sum up the profound changes that are expected in the Eastern Arctic if international meetings such as the one in Paris are unable to agree on how to bring greenhouse gas emissions under control.
The Arctic is warming faster than almost anywhere else on Earth – about twice the rate of the global average. That means air temperatures will increase by at least four degrees by 2050 – and as much as eight – if nothing is done. The pace of warming is picking up. Most of what has occurred so far has taken place since 1993.
Mr. Brown's report outlines drastic changes that will face the Arctic if climate change goes unchecked. The ground will be snow-covered for about 30 fewer days. Precipitation will increase by anywhere from 8 per cent to 26 per cent, most of it in spring and fall. Lakes and rivers will see a month's less ice, and what there is will be up to 30 centimetres thinner. Sea ice will thin by as much as 45 centimetres. The ice season could be seven weeks shorter and a nearly ice-free summer could develop some time between 2020 and 2040.
Glaciers are melting more quickly now than at any time in the past 2,000 years – so quickly that Canada's Arctic islands are now the world's third-largest contributor to sea-level rise.
Although conclusive data are lacking, early results also suggest storms will get more frequent and more intense. Cyclones along the east coast of Hudson Bay have already increased by more than 15 per cent.
Complicating the whole picture is that changes would be experienced differently in different regions of the Arctic.
"The climate is very locally driven in these valleys and fiords where a lot of these communities are located," Mr. Brown said.
Climate models don't generally have a higher resolution than 50 kilometres, Mr. Brown said. But local Arctic climates are often deeply affected by features as small as one kilometre – a narrow ocean channel, for example.
There's only one model capable of creating enough detail to suggest what might happen in the highly complex map of the Canadian Arctic, Mr. Brown said.
"There's only one set of results to date that apply to changing ice cover in that area."
ArcticNet is Canada's single largest gathering of scientists studying the North. More than 250 oral presentations are scheduled by everyone from oceanographers to sociologists.
All that research is conducted in front of a climate backdrop, Mr. Brown said. And all individual climate changes affect each other and add up in ways we don't yet fully understand.
"There definitely will be cumulative impacts on traditional way of life," he said. "Your snow cover's decreasing. Your sea ice is decreasing. Your patterns of wildlife are going to change."