Study links 1,000-year Arctic storm to climate change

A study says that a howling beast of an Arctic storm that caused the worst flooding in 1,000 years backs up predictions that climate change will cause unprecedented and unpredictably violent weather.

“It’s exactly what one would predict with increased warming,” said John Smol, a Queen’s University scientist and co-author of a paper published Monday in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The full study is “Impacts of a recent storm surge on an Arctic delta ecosystem examined in the context of the last millennium” (subs. req’d). It concludes:

What is of particular significance is that the magnitude of this recent ecological impact is unmatched over the > 1,000-year history of this lake ecosystem. We infer that no biological recovery has occurred in this lake, while large areas of terrestrial vegetation remain dramatically altered over a decade later, suggesting that these systems may be on a new ecological trajectory.


It’s an impressive piece of research that adds to the growing body of evidence that recent warming and extreme weather is both unprecedented and dangerous (see “Two seminal Nature papers join growing body of evidence that human emissions fuel extreme weather, flooding that harm humans and the environment”)

Here’s some background from the University’s own news story:

Scientists from Queen’s and Carleton universities head a national multidisciplinary research team that has uncovered startling new evidence of the destructive impact of global climate change on North America’s largest Arctic delta.

“One of the most ominous threats of global warming today is from rising sea levels, which can cause marine waters to inundate the land,” says the team’s co-leader, Queen’s graduate student Joshua Thienpont. “The threat is especially acute in polar regions, where shrinking sea ice increases the risk of storm surges.”

By studying growth rings from coastal shrubs and lake sediments in the Mackenzie Delta region of the Northwest Territories — the scene of a widespread and ecologically destructive storm surge in 1999 — the researchers have discovered that the impact of these salt-water surges is unprecedented in the 1,000-year history of the lake.

“This had been predicted by all the models and now we have empirical evidence,” says team co-leader Michael Pisaric, a geography professor at Carleton. The Inuvialuit, who live in the northwest Arctic, identified that a major surge had occurred in 1999, and assisted with field work.

The researchers studied the impact of salt water flooding on alder bushes along the coastline. More than half of the shrubs sampled were dead within a year of the 1999 surge, while an additional 37 per cent died within five years. A decade after the flood, the soils still contained high concentrations of salt. In addition, sediment core profiles from inland lakes revealed dramatic changes in the aquatic life — with a striking shift from fresh to salt-water species following the storm surge.

“Our findings show this is ecologically unprecedented over the last millennium,” says Queen’s biology professor and team member John Smol, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change and winner of the 2004 NSERC Herzberg Gold Medal as Canada’s top scientist. “The Arctic is on the front line of climate change. It’s a bellwether of things to come: what affects the Arctic eventually will affect us all.”

Of course, we’re already seeing many more 100-year, 500-year, and 1000-year storms here in the United States and around the globe