Climate Change in Kluane

How Warming Is Profoundly Changing a Great Northern Wilderness

Kluane Lake. Photo: Darcy Doran-Myers

Several of our projects are based in the Kluane Lake region of the southwestern Yukon. Researchers there have recently observed the first case of “river piracy” caused by anthropogenic climate change. The article linked above explores river piracy and other changes in Kluane that may be attributed to climate change. University of Alberta ecologists Stan Boutin and David Hik are featured in the article.

Winter Fieldwork in the Yukon

The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
I’ve bade ’em good-by—but I can’t.
– Robert Service, “The Spell of the Yukon”

Field assistant Bailey, Kluane resident Peter Upton, and Bubba the dog snowshoe across the ice on Kluane Lake.

I spent January of this year in the boreal forests of Kluane, Yukon. My goal was to collect pictures, fur samples, and tracks of Canada lynx in order to estimate density of lynx in the Kluane area. My Master’s project compares methods of density estimation to improve lynx research and management. Every few months I head to my field site in Kluane. I have experienced every season of the year in the Yukon, from the midnight sun in summer to the deep dark and cold of winter. No time of the year is quite like January. 

Most of my time in Kluane, regardless of season, is spent hiking. This becomes particularly challenging in winter. This year, temperatures dipped to -35 Celsius and snow was thigh-deep in many places. Bailey (my field assistant/ hiking buddy) and I looked to lynx for advice on how to traverse long distances in deep snow. Lynx have disproportionately large feet, making them look funny in summer but helping them keep up with their prey in winter. Their feet function as snowshoes to distribute their weight and help them float on top of the snow. So, Bailey and I got some snowshoes. Not just any snowshoes; modern, lightweight snowshoes were ineffective in snow that deep. In order to make it to all our remote cameras and fur snag sites, we had to borrow extra-large, old-school snowshoes from a local outdoorsman. After a steep learning curve where we learned to walk without tripping (sometimes), the snowshoes became indispensable to our everyday hikes. 

Bailey and I in our snowshoes, on a long hike through a frozen creek bed. We set out this day to collect lynx fur samples from a snag. (Photo by Lindsay Potts)

Cold temperatures were less easily dealt with. Lynx grow big fur coats every winter, with a beard around their neck for a scarf and thick fur between their toes for boots. All Bailey and I could do was outfit ourselves in the human-made substitutes. No matter how much we layered up, we still lost heat throughout the day and had to manage it as best we could. When temperatures were low, lunch breaks to eat our (frozen) sandwiches were limited at five or ten minutes, or until the cold caught up to us. Taking off our mittens even briefly to check cameras or to make a note was painful. Camera screens wouldn’t work, handheld GPSs would turn off mid-hike, and even pen ink would freeze. The Yukon cold did not make our fieldwork easy.

A Canada lynx notices a remote camera set atop a ridge in Kluane.

Despite the deep snow and the deep cold, Bailey and I headed outside each day to take advantage of every hour of daylight available. A key lesson that I learned this field season is that tough conditions are not as tough when you have a friend by your side to experience it all with you. Long sunrises and sunsets, Northern Lights to light up the night, and expansive white landscapes can help counter the extreme conditions with extreme beauty. And the real reward for the tough times was a lot of data. We collected about 250 pictures of lynx and 100 fur samples for analysis in that month. Every successful camera or fur snag and every lynx track in the snow is another piece of the puzzle to understanding lynx populations and improving our management of an ecologically, economically, and culturally important wildlife species.

The sun rises at 10 AM and lights up the sky above the Alaska Highway.

I will return to Kluane for the last time in June. I look forward to experiencing yet another side of the North. By June, everything will have turned from bright white to bright green. The winter challenges of cold and snow will be exchanged for mosquitoes and mud. Long days will keep me outside for hours on end, and I look forward to returning to camp every day tired and happy. But I will certainly miss the Kluane winter and everything it offers. Again in the words of Robert Service:

There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land – oh it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back- and I will.
– “The Spell of the Yukon”

Dream team.

Darcy Doran-Myers

Where should we prioritize biodiversity conservation under climate change?

 

As most regions of the earth transition to altered climatic conditions, new methods are needed to identify the most likely refuges for biodiversity and to prioritize conservation actions. A variety of metrics and approaches have been proposed. Some are based on predicting future climates and rates of change (“climate velocity”). Others use only information on the current environment, finding areas where there are steep elevation gradients or topographic variation (“environmental diversity”) that help species to find climate refuges nearby. Faced with high stakes and a wide array of conservation targets, planners and land managers need new tools to deal with these new challenges.

In a new open-access paper published in Global Change Biology, led by Carlos Carroll and co-authored by U of A researchers Diana Stralberg, Scott Nielsen, and Andreas Hamann as part of the AdaptWestinitiative, we set out to compare a variety of velocity and diversity metrics for conservation planning under climate change across North America. Specifically, we evaluated similarities and differences among different methods across different spatial scales and elevation ranges. Not surprisingly, we found substantial variation among metrics. But somewhat remarkably given uncertainty around future climate change projections, there was more variation among environmental diversity metrics based on current environmental conditions than among climate velocity metrics based on alternative future climates. We also found that while all diversity and velocity metrics generally increase with elevation, so do the contrasts among them, due to interactions between climate and terrain (see figure below).

image

So what is a planner to do, given all these differences? We suggest that metrics be combined, with areas of greater variation down-weighted (all spatial data are being made available through AdaptWest). Alternatively, finer-scale diversity metrics can be substituted where available, and supplemented with data on key target species as needed. Climate velocity metrics are useful for identifying broad-scale “macro-refugia,” where more species may find a long-term refuge from climate change. Areas of high environmental diversity should correspond with greater potential for local “micro-refugia” that can serve as temporary havens for species under a climate in flux. Where they coincide, short- and long-term conservation potential can be achieved most efficiently. We found that neither type was well-represented by the current protected area system, suggesting that much conservation work is still needed in order to prepare and adapt where possible to climate change.

D. Stralberg

Citation: Carroll, C., Roberts, D.R., Michalak, J.L., Lawler, J.J., Nielsen, S.E., Stralberg, D., Hamann, A., McRae, B.H., Wang, T. 2017. Scale-dependent complementarity of climatic velocity and environmental diversity for identifying priority areas for conservation under climate change. Global Change Biology (early view).

Link to paper: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/wol1/doi/10.1111/gcb.13679/abstract