Q&A with Arctic Terrestrial Ecologist, Trevor Lantz

By: Elise Pullar (2016 Arctic, Parks Canada, Environmental Studies at uVic)

 

Trevor Lantz is a professor in the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria. A terrestrial ecologist and ethnobiologist by trade, he has been working in the Western Arctic for 14 years. Trevor runs the Arctic Landscape Ecology Lab at the University of Victoria, where he and his students combine field studies and remote sensing to determine the causes and consequences of Arctic landscape change.

I got the chance to sit down with the man himself and ask a few questions about the beautiful Western Arctic!

Q: Tell me about the first time you visited Canada’s North.

A: As an undergrad student I had an opportunity to work a fair bit in the sub-arctic forest. I planted trees early on in my undergrad across Northern Ontario. Later, I worked as a field assistant in the boreal forest in Northern Alberta. These were my earliest experiences up north.

I first travelled to the Arctic during my PhD, which focussed on the tundra between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk . In my PhD I wanted to learn more about how and why the vegetation in the Arctic was changing. Being able to work and camp across the North was a pretty awesome opportunity. Those early experiences, especially the generosity and hospitality of northerners I met, really planted the seed for my research program and got me hooked on the Arctic.

Q: What is surprising about the Western Arctic?

A: What surprised me the most was how incredibly diverse it is. Before visiting, I guess I thought of the Arctic as a relatively homogeneous place, but the Western Arctic is hugely varied! In the Mackenzie delta there is a massive floodplain with comparatively lush forest. When you climb up out of the delta, the treeless tundra of the Tuk Coastlands is also really varied. There are lake rich areas, thousands of tiny peatlands, pingos, and huge stretches of coastline. In the south, transitional areas are strongly influenced by the flora of the boreal forest and way up north on the Arctic Islands vegetation is simpler, but still surprisingly patchy.

 

{Pingo near Tuktoyaktuk. Photo by Trevor Lantz.}

Q: What significant environmental changes have you seen in the Western Arctic since you began studying northern landscapes?

 A: In the Tuk Coastlands and on the north slope of the Yukon, the structure of vegetation is being transformed. In the past 20 years or so, the dominance of shrub species, like willow, birch and alder has increased dramatically. In some places the vegetation has shifted from something you walk on to something that you need to move aside to get through.

We’ve also observed an acceleration in several kinds of permafrost thaw. We have done lots of work on one form of permafrost thaw called thaw slumps. These are landslides that develop in sloped areas with high ice content in the permafrost. Slumps mobilize huge amounts of sediment and impact water quality, habitat, vegetation, and infrastructure like roads. The area of thaw slumps in the high and low Arctic has increased dramatically in the past few years. Because of slumps, Banks Island and the Peel Plateau area are some of the most rapidly evolving landscapes on the planet. In these areas the slumps are so large we have called them mega-slumps. Last summer, there was a slump that caused an entire lake to drain!

{Students hiking towards a large slump on the Peel Plateau, NWT – Photo by Trevor Lantz}

Q: Through the Arctic Landscape Ecology lab, you are able to bring students outside the classroom to learn about Canada’s North. What is so powerful about this experiential learning?

A: There is really no substitute for seeing something, experiencing something or touching something. Experiential learning also has a huge effect on the way that we understand the world. Students in my lab are out on the land collecting data to answer specific research questions.  Their field data and overall experience is fundamental to this process.

 

{Student taking field notes at Peninsula Point. Photo by Ciara Sharpe.}

Q: What role do you think national parks can play in mitigating these changes in the Western Arctic?

A: Large protected areas are vital to maintain ecological integrity and sustain populations of the species harvested by northern communities. Many people think of the Western Arctic as an undisturbed area of the world, but when you actually take stock of all the disturbances, it’s surprising. Will Tyson, one of my recent MSc. students worked on a project tracking the historic human and natural disturbances in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region. In that area, understanding the current level of landscape fragmentation is vital to ensure that northern ecosystems are adequately protected. National parks also provide an important ecological baseline.

 

Q: What do you want students to know about the Western Arctic?

A: The western Arctic is the homeland of the Inuvialuit and Gwich’in people and one of the most amazing landscapes in the country. It is also one of the most rapidly changing. Temperature increases in this region have been larger than most places on the planet and there is a critical need to understand impacts on ecosystems, food security, and northern communities. The Arctic also has a huge impact on the global climate system, and changes that are occurring in the north will impact people all over the world. The temperatures increases that have already occurred in the western Arctic are similar to the warming projected for many areas of southern Canada. So in a way, paying attention to the changes occurring in the Arctic now, provides an indication of changes we also should anticipate across Canada in the near future.

 

{The Mackenzie Delta, NWT. Photo by Chanda Brietzke.}

Q: How can students at the University of Victoria get involved in the program?

The Arctic Landscape Ecology Lab is always looking for new grad students to join the program. Keen undergrad students are also welcome to join the lab and start exploring the Arctic earlier in their studies. For more information, visit http://ale.uvic.ca or contact Trevor Lantz directly at tlantz@uvic.ca.

 

Elise Pullar was part of the Parks Canada Northern Engagement and Outreach Team and is an Alumna of the 2016 Arctic expedition.

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