Poking for permafrost in Torngat Mountains National Park
© Parks Canada / Chantal Ouimet

Parks Canada has established a system of national parks and national historic sites to protect and celebrate places of natural and cultural significance. This responsibility is built on the principle of ecological integrity, which features the protection of specific natural resources and natural processes that give such places their distinctive character.

The National Parks Act outlines the meaning of ecological integrity, which sets the mandate for Parks Canada. The specific language includes references to existing species and biological communities, while allowing natural processes of change to continue where they are typical of that particular ecosystem. An outstanding example of such change processes is the role of fire in renewing forests. Ecological integrity also includes obvious inhabitants, such as plants and animals, as well as non-living aspects of their environment that contribute to their survival, such as a wetland or geological feature.

This concept was significant in a number of research projects undertaken during 2007 and 2008, a period designated as the International Polar Year (IPY). Throughout the Arctic and Antarctic, thousands of researchers from dozens of countries took part in expeditions dedicated to enhancing our understanding of the changes taking place in these regions. Four of these ambitious multinational initiatives have been mounted over the last 130 years, a concentrated effort that has significantly accelerated progress across a wide range of scientific disciplines.

Parks Canada regarded this latest IPY as an ideal opportunity to consider how to appropriately assess the ecological integrity of the large northern parks and reserves that have been created in the last 35 years. One project in particular, Climate Change Impacts on Canadian Arctic Tundra (CiCAT) brought together researchers studying soil, vegetation, carbon fluxes, ecosystem modeling, and community-based monitoring. They looked at features of the land that would make such monitoring as simple and effective as possible, setting the stage for decades to come.

The work took teams of scientists to remote settings like Torngat Mountains National Park in Newfoundland and Labrador, Wapusk National Park in Manitoba, and Ivvavik National Park in Yukon. One approach was dedicated to developing a comprehensive inventory of plants growing on the land, which could be used to measure the level of ecological activity in a given section of tundra, forest, or wetland. Ultimately, this information will be combined with observations of the same vegetation by aerial photography or orbiting satellites. Changes in land cover over time should reveal the effects of changing levels of permafrost, flooding, or other processes, even if ground-based observers are not able to reach these particular sites.

This concept was applied even more directly in another project, which employed archives of remote sensing data collected by Landsat or Radarsat since the 1980s. This retrospective analysis concentrated on 20 years’ worth of such imagery from Ivvavik National Park; members of the research team considered how the information could help them tackle questions about what was happening on the ground, such as how the treeline was moving or where vegetation was changing more rapidly.

A third project worked in collaboration with the University of British Columbia and Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, where researchers have already been working on similar strategies for handling data assembled on northern landscapes. Known as the Canadian Tundra & Taiga Experiment, this undertaking is linked with the International Tundra Experiment, which is likewise dedicated to studying long-term changes occurring in northern ecosystems. As these models become more sophisticated, it should be possible to examine the impact of substantial changes, such as rising average annual temperature.

Researchers are also looking forward to an approach that will integrate findings from aquatic surveys, examining the relationship between changes on the land and changes in freshwater or marine environments. As a first step toward understanding this relationship, one IPY project focused on the Ivitak watershed of Torngat Mountains National Park. Different survey teams worked in close proximity, with the aim of integrating the resulting information across this and other ecosystems in the region. The ultimate goal will be to describe the interaction of individual ecosystems, as well as the behaviour of the entire watershed ecosystem. Eventually, the findings should make it possible to combine scientific and local Inuit perspectives for an even broader appreciation of this new park’s ecological integrity.

Complementary factsheets are also available on aquatic ecological integrity research (International Polar Year) and on the use of remote sensing for monitoring northern parks (ParkSPACE).

Stories from the field:

  • A link with the land, a link with the future
    The task of managing Canada’s national parks is one of ongoing monitoring from year to year. Over the course of decades the results will provide a treasure trove of insights about the nature of the land, as well as how it is changing. 
  • A toolkit for the terrain 
    Parks Canada researchers embraced the International Polar Year as an opportunity to set new standards for the way the agency’s more remote northern parks are monitored. This work revolves around the concept of ecological integrity, a fundamental principle for taking stock of the park environment, including the dynamic relationship between plants, animals, people, and the land itself.