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Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty of Arts
September 20, 2014
 
 
Canadian Excellence


Unloading research equipment from Twin Otter at the First Lake Camp, near the headwaters of Scotty Creek, NWT.

Research Interests



Overview

Canada’s freshwater resource is considered one of the most abundant in the world. However, there are serious concerns about the future state of northern surface freshwater, Canada’s largest freshwater reserve, because of its vulnerability to climatic warming and human activities. As Laurier’s Chair in Cold Regions Hydrology, Dr. Quinton aims at strengthening Canada’s capacity to confidently and sustainably manage its northern water resources in face of new challenges and uncertainties from climate warming and unprecedented human disturbance. Quinton's team carries out both fundamental and applied research on hydrological processes in Canada’s north. This is approached through specialised observations in a set of research basins where the key components of the natural water and energy cycles and associated flow and storage processes can be observed and used to develop and test mass and energy flow concepts and numerical descriptions. New knowledge and predictive tools are disseminated through leading international journals and conferences and through interactive training workshops with user communities and stake-holders. The Chair’s research and community engagement activities inform several federal and territorial resource policy initiatives. The Chair also nurtures a rich pedagogical environment for high-quality student training at undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral levels.

Permafrost thaw

Quinton’s research team is focussed on understanding permafrost thaw processes, and how permafrost thaw influences a variety of hydrological and related ecosystem processes. Permafrost thaw is one of the most important and dramatic manifestations of climate warming in Canada, and is strongly influenced by feedback processes. It also has the potential to alter other key aspects of ecosystems such as runoff and snowcover, forest composition, biodiversity and habitat for keystone species, surface-atmosphere interactions including greenhouse gas fluxes, forest fire regimes and the quantity and quality of flows to downstream ecosystems and the Arctic Ocean. While permafrost and ecosystem responses to warming occur in varying degrees throughout the North, the discontinuous permafrost zone of the subarctic is where the most dramatic permafrost thaw and landscape transformations are currently observed. Forcasted dramatic changes in temperature and moisture are expected to affect the processes governing the release of carbon dioxide and methane from the vast stores of carbon in northern peatlands. There are strong indications that the hydrology and hydrochemistry of the subarctic are changing as a result of permafrost thaw, yet little is known about the interactions and feedbacks among climate, water, biogeochemistry, and ecology of subarctic ecosystems. As a result, the ecosystem consequences of warming cannot be predicted with confidence. The implications of these feedbacks are not only prevalent in the sub-arctic but also to downstream aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems and the Arctic Ocean, downwind as weather systems to the settled regions of southern Canada, and to global climate systems through changes to greenhouse gas fluxes, forest fire regimes and ground surface albedo.

Scotty Creek Research Station

Quinton’s field studies are focussed in the Northwest Territories, particularly in the Taiga Plains ecoregion. He also has secondary research sites in north-eastern British Columbia and in the Yukon. Most of his field research is conducted at Scotty Creek in the peatland-dominated southern margin of discontinuous permafrost, 50 km south of Fort Simpson, NWT. The integrative research program at Scotty Creek exemplifies the importance of partnerships in northern research. Scientists working at the site represent university, federal and territorial agencies with diverse expertise, interests, and objectives working from different perspectives toward a common goal. The ecosystem is lowland, black spruce-dominated muskeg and the questions driving all of the research relate to landcover change. Specifically, the discontinuous permafrost underlying the forests in this region is disappearing rapidly due to climate warming with dramatic implications for the hydrological and ecological functions of the system including water flows and storage as well as wildlife habitat. This is of great concern to neighbouring communities where the impacts of permafrost thaw are increasingly noticeable leading to the engagement of these communities as partners in the research. Participation of community partners in local field research and planning as well as regular meetings with leadership and council provide the opportunity for a two-way flow of information, advice and support, enhancing support for and success of the research programme. Scotty Creek represents one of Wilfrid Laurier University's key nodes in the NWT, contributing to a formal 10-year partnership between Laurier and the territorial government focused on research and training.