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Hudson Bay Lowlands, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

The Hudson Bay Lowlands in Canada had remained resistant to global warming, but a new study finds that could be changing.

Photograph by John E. Marriott, All Canada Photos/Corbis

Brian Handwerk

for National Geographic

Published October 8, 2013

The Arctic has experienced some of Earth's first and greatest effects of climate change, but the icy lowlands around Hudson Bay have remained remarkably resistant to warming—until recently. A new study reports that, since the mid-1990s, aquatic ecosystems in one of the Arctic's last refugia have undergone dramatic climate-driven changes and appear to have reached an ecological tipping point.

While local temperatures had remained relatively steady before the last two decades, they've risen since then at rates that are extremely high even for the Arctic. The increase has changed the mix of freshwater organisms that anchor local food chains in a way never before seen over centuries of historical record. (Related: "Summer Arctic Sea Ice Recovers From 2012, But Trend 'Decidedly' Down.")

"The Arctic is often described as Earth's 'canary in the coal mine' because it's the first area to show change. Shifts also happen very quickly there," said John Smol, a paleolimnologist at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, whose new research on the area was released today.

Smol added that, although data show Arctic warming dating back to the 1800s, there were always a few refugia that seemed relatively resistant to change—including this area around Hudson Bay.

"There were good reasons for that," he said. "Hudson Bay is the second largest inland sea in the world, and it is choked with ice that helped keep the area cool," he said. "So it had to pass a kind of tipping point. Only since the mid-1990s has it warmed up enough that it started losing its ice."

Hudson Bay has warmed about three degrees Celsius since the 1990s, and change has accelerated, said Smol. "We see some striking ecosystem shifts in these lakes." Smol pointed to increased stratification in the lake by temperature layers and shifts in algae.

Paleoclimate History Written in Mud

While the area's native peoples maintain traditional knowledge of past conditions and stress significant recent changes, there isn't any long-term historical record of climatological data in the region. But the evidence for these changes and their unique historical context is locked in mud on the bottom of local lakes in what Smol calls "natural archives."

(Related: "As Arctic Melts, a Race to Test Oil Spill Cleanup Technology.")

"Lake sediments slowly accumulate, 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, layering and preserving an incredible amount of information in the mud," Smol said. "So they are like a paleoclimatological history book if we learn to pull the information out of them."

Many organisms left microscopic fossils behind, especially algae. Since different species survive under different conditions—like altered water chemistry or icy flows, compared with more open water—scientists can work out past conditions by studying such tiny fossils.

Sediment cores and the ancient algae they contain go back a thousand years in some cases and show that the Hudson Bay region's lakes experienced very little biological change over the centuries—until the past few decades. After the mid-1990s, the aquatic biota in the sediment record show striking shifts in ecosystems that are very similar to those seen elsewhere across the Arctic in regions where air temperatures warmed and time periods of ice-free water increased.

"Essentially, this region warmed a couple of decades later than most of the rest of the Arctic, and the lake flora has experienced rapid shifts similar to previous changes in other lakes," said Konrad Hughen, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who was not affiliated with the study.

"One important observation they make is that the timing of these late changes coincides with local warming, not regionally increased nitrogen [nutrient] deposition. So, this supports the previous conclusions about changes in other lakes around the Arctic that they were caused by widespread warming and not nutrient changes."

Strange New World

On the other side of the globe, Antarctic sea ice has expanded so much it set a record—for the second year in a row. Back-to-back iciest years since record keeping began in 1978 have left scientists searching for explanations—especially because the Southern Ocean waters below have continued to warm. (Related: "Antarctic Sea Ice Hits Record ... High?")

Physical changes on tap around Hudson Bay could mirror those seen earlier in the high Arctic, Smol said, including less lake ice, shallower or dried-up lakes and ponds, and the loss of productive wet peat lands. Recent studies have suggested negative impacts on brook charr and other fish important to local peoples who must deal with the shifting landscape.

"There are real changes happening, and now we have paleoclimatological records," Smol said. "This was one of the last holdouts in the Arctic, but now I feel we've lost it and we're entering uncharted territory." (Related: "Why Predicting Sea Ice Cover Is So Difficult.")

The research was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

13 comments
s.hammad samsudeen
s.hammad samsudeen

THIS KIND OF NAT GEO PHOTOGRAPHS MAKES ME COOL EVEN AFTER I FINISHED MY CLASS

craig hill
craig hill

As the planet melts, so goes life.

No other ape could be so stupid to be so powerful as we and so dumb.


Matia Ellis
Matia Ellis

So wait.. is this saying it is STILL increasing in heat so its melting more???

Paul M.
Paul M.

We need to end this costly debate soon before it's too late!

What has to happen now after 30 years of intensive CO2 research for science to agree a crisis will happen instead of just could happen? Let's hope it's not too late when they finally say a crisis is now; "inevitable" and "unavoidable". So far they have never agreed on anything beyond "could be" a crisis and not one IPCC warning says it WILL be a crisis nor isn't swimming in "maybes".

Science can silence the deniers and end this costly debate to save the planet by giving us a real warning otherwise a consensus of "could be" is unsustainable and thus dooms us all.

Both believer and former believer can agree that the scientists can save their own children as well as ours by ending this unsustainable "maybe" consensus so we can even have a chance at CO2 mitigation. 

Gerard Mathias
Gerard Mathias

THE SOLUTION TO REVERSING GLOBAL WARMING IS RIGHT IN FRONT OF OUR FACES: WORLD POPULATION HAS DOUBLED IN THE LAST 50 YEARS. YOU CAN'T EXPECT AN OVER-POPULATED PLANET TO NOT FEEL THE STRAIN. WORLD-WIDE BIRTH CONTROL NEEDS TO BE A SUBJECT ON EVERY GOVERNMENT AGENDA ACROSS THE WORLD. AND A SUBJECT EVERYONE IS AWARE OF...

craig hill
craig hill

@Paul M. We're past the tipping point.  All we're doing now is exacerbating global near-extinction (life will continue at the bottom of the oceans, which will be otherwise so acidic from absorbing greenhouse gases that phytoplankton, responsible for 50% of the oxygen on the planet, will cease to be, while on the land surface, temperatures will be so much hotter than mere deserts, plant life, responsible for the other 50% of oxygen, will be extinct).

John C.
John C.

@Paul M. 

Ummm..."maybe" is what science is all about.

Scientific findings, especially in climate science, are communicated terms of probabilities. Religious dogma is couched in terms of absolute certainty, gloom and doom. Your tone is that of an AGW Religionist "believer", to use your term. 

Embrace the dogma, burn the agnostics and heretics! And let me guess what your ashes and sack cloth solution is: more regulation, more government control, higher taxes, higher prices for energy and every other consumer product by extension. 

Repent and embrace the ascetic life style, except of course for Al Gore, Hollywood celebs and other rich, liberal High Priests of Green.

craig hill
craig hill

@Gerard Mathias The global population could reach 10 billion had fossil fuels stopped being burned in the '90s or '00s.  The burning of fossil fuels does not necessarily have anything to do with population.  You have your berserk-nutcake populations, the minority of whom are affluent and responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas-creation, and you have your non-greenhouse gas-burning "primitives", almost completely non-responsible for the problem, who comprise the great majority of humanity, 

Paul M.
Paul M.

@Gerard Mathias We all agree with your point but what is stalling population control is the climate change exaggeration. 30 years of needless CO2 panic was a pure war crime for the history books.

Debbie Rupert
Debbie Rupert

Our food supply is compromised due to droughts and natural disasters, which is probably a result of climate change. When you think of population growth and the water supply, you quickly realize that there will not be enough water for our growing population-too many people and not enough food & water will be a huge problem

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