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Last updated on April 23, 2014 at 15:01 EDT

Potentially ‘Catastrophic’ Changes Underway In Canada’s Northern Mackenzie River Basin

June 10, 2013

Fund recommended to hedge against greatest threat: a breached oil sands tailing pond; Biodiversity in watershed covering roughly 20% of Canada compared to Africa’s Serengeti; Alarm raised at melting of permafrost, ice that plays vital global climate role

Canada’s Mackenzie River basin — among the world’s most important major ecosystems — is poorly studied, inadequately monitored, and at serious risk due to climate change and resource exploitation, a panel of international scientists warn today.

In a report, nine Canadian, US and UK scientists convened by the US-based Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy, say effective governance of the massive Basin, comprising an area three times larger than France — holds enormous national and global importance due to the watershed’s biodiversity and its role in hemispheric bird migrations, stabilizing climate and the health of the Arctic Ocean.

The panel agreed the largest single threat to the Basin is a potential breach in the tailings ponds at one of the large oil sands sites mining surface bitumen. A breach in winter sending tailings liquid under the ice of the tributary Athabasca River, “would be virtually impossible to remediate or clean-up,” says the report.

“Extractive industries should be required to post a substantial performance bond which would be used to cover the costs of site clean-up should the enterprise fail financially or otherwise fail to fully remediate damage and destruction at the site in question,” the report says. “The performance bond should be secured prior to site development and the commencement of operations.”

Researchers have compared the Mackenzie Basin to Africa’s Serengeti Plain, an area of comparable size. Both ecosystems harbour high biodiversity and biological productivity compared to others in their respective regions. There are some 45,000 biologically productive lakes in the Mackenzie Basin.

Meanwhile, the ice and snow cover in the Mackenzie Basin provides a vital refrigerator-like cooling role, in weather and climate patterns throughout the northern hemisphere.

University of California Prof. Henry Vaux, Chair of the Rosenberg Forum, stressed that the average temperature in the Basin has already warmed beyond the 2 degree Celsius upon which nations agreed in Copenhagen as a limit not to be surpassed.

And, he noted, the World Meteorological Organization (2012) reported that ice cover in the Arctic between March and September of 2012 had been reduced by an area of 11.83 million square kilometers.

“To put that in perspective, Canada is about 10 million square kilometers in area; the area of Arctic sea ice that melted last summer was almost 2 million square kilometers larger,” says Dr. Vaux.

The report, based on hearings conducted in Vancouver Sept. 5 to 7 last year, supported by the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, says warm air now arrives in the north earlier in the spring and often persists longer into the autumn.

The Mackenzie Basin helps moderate climate by capping hundreds of millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases in permafrost soils, which cover 20% of the Earth’s surface. Deep permafrost — in some places two kilometres deep — can take 100,000 years to form.

In regions like the Mackenzie Basin, however, where average annual temperature is only slightly below freezing, permafrost is much thinner. Its melting will release massive quantities of methane (a greenhouse gas 21 times more potential per molecule than CO2) into the atmosphere.

Rising Arctic temperatures are already affecting the hydrological cycle of the Northwest Territories and other parts of Canada “and all signs indicate these changes will accelerate over time,” according to the report.

Glacier coverage has declined by approximately 25 per cent in the last 25 years and in spring snow cover in the Canadian Rockies disappears about one month earlier.

Though these changes are already significant, “and in some cases border on catastrophic,” the report says, climate simulations suggest increased warming will lead to even higher temperatures of a level not seen on Earth in more than 10,000 years. “Most participating stakeholders believe the region could adapt if the changes occur slowly,” says the report. “However, rapid warming will make adaptation considerably more difficult.”

“If vegetation and wildlife patterns are modified by climate change, then indigenous peoples’ subsistence lifestyles are at risk. The effect of long-term climate change on communities, however, will also be determined by other factors, including lifestyle choices made by the region’s inhabitants. Although socio-economic patterns and determinants are not well understood, it is possible that subsistence lifestyles will not be feasible in the future.”

Though the total number of Arctic people living on substance lifestyle is unknown, it is estimated that about 30% of people in Canada’s Northwest Territory (population: 42,500) have a diet that includes at least 50% “country food.”

Says the report: “The Mackenzie River appears to be less well studied than most other major rivers of the world,” and threats beyond warming temperatures include “unrestrained development, lack of attention to environmental protection and a lack of will to acknowledge and recognize the lifestyles of the Basin’s indigenous peoples.”

Eight principle findings and conclusions, Rosenberg Forum report

-The ecologic, hydrologic and climatologic regimes of the Mackenzie River Basin are at risk from planetary warming. The area is ecologically fragile and could become more so.
-The Mackenzie River Basin is a globally important resource. Its biological, hydrological and climatological properties affect the welfare of people throughout the Western Hemisphere and, to some extent, globally.
-The Mackenzie River Basin is less studied than many of the other large basins of the world. The ambient environment of the Mackenzie is changing relatively rapidly. These two factors mean that management of the lands and waters of the Basin will have to occur in the face of significant uncertainties.
-The Basin is fragmented jurisdictionally, making holistic management of its resources nearly impossible. Overarching authority for the management of the Basin should be vested in a strengthened Mackenzie River Basin Board (MRBB), authorized by the Mackenzie River Basin Transboundary Waters Master Agreement of 1997. A reinvigorated MRBB will need significantly more financial support and will benefit from the advice and counsel of an independent International Science Advisory Committee.
-The reinvigorated MRBB should manage the Basin adaptively and holistically. This will require a perpetual, robust and adequately funded monitoring program that should be the responsibility of the Canadian federal government.
-Adaptive management and the precautionary principle need to be employed assiduously in managing scientific uncertainty in the Mackenzie River Basin.
-Extractive industries should be required to post a substantial performance bond which would be used to cover the costs of site clean-up should the enterprise fail financially or otherwise fail to fully remediate damage and destruction at the site in question. The performance bond should be secured prior to site development and the commencement of operations.
-There are a number of value issues that must be addressed forthrightly and transparently. They involve the interplay of two distinctly different cultures within the Basin — issues related to rates and types of appropriate economic growth, and the oversight and regulation of extractive industries and hydroelectric development.

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Source: Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy