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Dry lakes and dust storms: Dramatic changes to Yukon glaciers are warning for planet, researchers say

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Gwenn Flowers, a glaciologist, trudges back and forth across a vast glacier in southwest Yukon, pulling a radar device mounted on skis behind her.

“We as Canadians are stewards of about a third of the world’s mountain glaciers and ice caps, so this is our responsibility,” Flowers says.

The dramatic changes to the glaciers in the Yukon are an early warning of what climate change could mean for the rest of the planet, researchers say. And Flowers sees lots of reason for concern reflected in the state of the ice.

The professor at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University loves ice. She has been coming to do field studies in the St. Elias mountains every summer for the past 13 years.

The Kaskawulsh glacier in the Yukon’s St. Elias Mountain region, often referred to as a ‘highway of ice.’ (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Her tiny team of three is mapping the Kaskawulsh glacier — 70 metres long and five kilometres wide — as it struggles under the double threat of a warming climate and diminishing snow cover.

The research boils down to an inescapable conclusion: The glacier can’t compensate for the volume it’s losing now each year.

The radar box Flowers tows on skis is specifically adapted for ice, and sends signals deep into the glacier’s core, bouncing off the bedrock. In places, the team has found ice more than 800 metres deep.

A team sets up a time-lapse camera on a surging glacier in the Yukon’s St. Elias Mountains. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

The team’s research shows the ice is rapidly thinning, however, losing about a half metre a year, says Flowers. And the enormous glacier is retreating.

The St. Elias mountain range crossing Yukon, B.C. and Alaska is less well-known than the Canadian Rockies and its icefields. But its ice cover is six times larger, making it the biggest icefield in the world outside Greenland and Antarctica.

Flowers and her team are trying to get a better picture of how the glacier is changing, and what that means to the larger environment.

“As Canadians, given our responsibility to be stewards of this ice, I think we could be doing better. I think Arctic science should be a priority. I think understanding our terrestrial and marine ice should be a national priority,” Flowers says.

Environmental impact

A 2018 report, entitled State of the Mountains, suggests the glaciers in the St. Elias Mountains are losing more ice than in any other Canadian Alpine area. In the 30 years from 1977 to 2007, the Kaskawulsh lost 17 square kilometres of ice.

Temperatures there have already risen 2 C in the past 50 years. They are predicted to rise at least another three degrees by the turn of the century, unless things change.

Gwenn Flowers says the ice of the Kaskawulsh glacier is thinning rapidly and losing about a half metre a year. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Yukon saw a particularly hot July last summer, the warmest in five years with several heat warnings issued.

Leading climate change scientists recently warned that the world has only a dozen years to slow the warming of the planet or risk worse drought, floods, and extreme heat. The authors of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say urgent and unprecedented changes are needed to keep global warming under 1.5 C.

“What the glaciers and ice sheets do makes a big difference to global sea levels, and makes a big difference to local environments where they form a water source,” Flowers says.

Watch a low-level helicopter flyover of a “surging glacier” in the St. Elias mountain range:

A CBC News crew hitches a ride on a helicopter doing a low-altitude flight over a ‘surging glacier’ in the Yukon’s St. Elias mountains. 0:31

Disappearing water

Around Kluane Lake, two research stations are monitoring the changes in Yukon’s climate and glaciers.

Andy Williams came to the area more than 40 years ago to manage the Kluane Lake Research Station. He also founded a small airline service ferrying scientists, hikers and tourists into the icefields.

He’s observed enormous changes in the ice over that time. While glaciers naturally advance and retreat, he says, it’s “not at this speed.”

Andy Williams, a former manager of the Kluane Lake Research Station, founded a small airline service ferrying scientists, hikers and tourists into the icefields. He says he’s seen the changes to the region’s climate in recent decades first-hand. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

And the changes in this region reflect what is also happening in the Andes, or the Himalayas, “where there are millions of people relying on a steady flow from glaciers to provide irrigation and drinking water.” If those shrink too fast, “the results are catastrophic,” he says.

The more rapid thinning of the big ice in Yukon is already causing dramatic consequences further down the mountains, like in the jewel-like Kluane Lake, Yukon’s largest, which borders Kluane National Park and Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

For 300 years, glacial runoff was the major water source for Kluane Lake, flowing in by way of the Slims River. But in May 2016, Kluane Lake levels dropped precipitously. The problem was a case of “river piracy” — incredibly rare, and hugely significant. The terminus or end of the Kaskawulsh glacier had receded enough that a glacial lake that fed the Slims River suddenly drained when the glacier outflow found a new direction to a new river.

It left the Slims River with little water as it made its way down the mountain to Kluane Lake.

Bob Dickson, the chief of Kluane First Nation, stands on the dry bed of what used to be a glacier-fed river. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

That summer Kluane Lake dropped 1.7 metres, and its levels remain low.

In the Kluane First Nation communities of Burwash and Destruction Bay, the shoreline retreated, restricting boat access to traditional fishing spots. Previous spawning areas for whitefish and trout have popped up above the water line.

“We can’t change it,” says Bob Dickson, the chief.

“We have to live with this lake in a different way. Hunting areas, fishing areas, all are changing. So we have to learn all over again.”

The Alaska Highway, one of the great northern routes from Yukon to Alaska, bisects the Slims River valley. Now huge dust storms often obscure the road, forcing camper vans to slow to a crawl. The riverbed, normally covered in water in late August, looks parched.

A camper drives through a dust storm on the Alaska Highway where it bisects the Slims River valley. The dust is from a dried river bed that used to be fed by the Kaskawulsh glacier.

“You can have dust storms where this whole valley is full of dust, and that’s all of the glacier flour, it’s just blowing it,” says Chief Dickson. “They’re really terrible, you can’t even see.”

Parks Canada is monitoring the “unprecedented” changes.

“We’re seeing a 20 per cent difference in area coverage of the glaciers in Kluane National Park and Reserve and the rest of the UNESCO World Heritage site [over a 60-year period],” says Diane Wilson, a field unit superintendent at Parks Canada.

“We’ve never seen that. It’s outside the scope of normal.

“Kluane is is an icon. People are so excited to come and visit this wonderful place, but they should know that it’s changing. Climate change knows no boundaries.”

– With files from Mia Sheldon


Watch Susan Ormiston’s feature on Yukon’s changing glaciers from The National

One-third of the world’s glaciers and icecaps exist in Canada, and in Yukon, the ice is thinning more than in any other alpine area in the country. 11:54


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Top 5 Analytics Trends That Are Shaping The Future

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Digital transformation is increasingly becoming the focus for many CIOs around the world today—with analytics playing a fundamental role in driving the future of the digital economy.

While data is important to every business, it is necessary for businesses to have a firm grip on data analytics to allow them transform raw pieces of data into important insights. However, unlike the current trends in business intelligence—which is centred around data visualization—the future of data analytics would encompass a more contextual experience.

“The known data analytics development cycle is described in stages: from descriptive (what happened) to diagnostic (why did it happen), to discovery (what can we learn from it), to predictive (what is likely to happen), and, finally, to prescriptive analytics (what action is the best to take),” said Maurice op het Veld is a partner at KPMG Advisory in a report.

“Another way of looking at this is that data analytics initially “supported” the decision-making process but is now enabling “better” decisions than we can make on our own.”

Here are some of the current trends that arealready shaping the future of data analytics in individuals and businesses.

  1. Growth in mobile devices

With the number of mobile devices expanding to include watches, digital personal assistants, smartphones, smart glasses, in-car displays, to even video gaming systems, the final consumption plays a key role on the level of impact analytics can deliver.

Previously, most information consumers accessed were on a computer with sufficient room to view tables, charts and graphs filled with data, now, most consumers require information delivered in a format well optimized for whatever device they are currently viewing it on.

Therefore, the content must be personalized to fit the features of the user’s device and not just the user alone.

  1. Continuous Analytics

More and more businesses are relying on the Internet of Things (IoT) and their respective streaming data—which in turn shortens the time it takes to capture, analyze and react to the information gathered. Therefore, while analytics programspreviously were termed successful when results were delivered within days or weeks of processing, the future of analytics is bound to drastically reduce this benchmark to hours, minutes, seconds—and even milliseconds.

“All devices will be connected and exchange data within the “Internet of Things” and deliver enormous sets of data. Sensor data like location, weather, health, error messages, machine data, etc. will enable diagnostic and predictive analytics capabilities,” noted Maurice.

“We will be able to predict when machines will break down and plan maintenance repairs before it happens. Not only will this be cheaper, as you do not have to exchange supplies when it is not yet needed, but you can also increase uptime.”

  1. Augmented Data Preparation

During the process of data preparation, machine learning automation will begin to augment data profiling and data quality, enrichment, modelling, cataloguing and metadata development.

Newer techniques would include supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement learning which is bound to enhance the entire data preparation process. In contrast to previous processes—which depended on rule-based approach to data transformation—this current trend would involve advanced machine learning processes that would evolve based on recent data to become more precise at responding to changes in data.

  1. Augmented Data Discovery

Combined with the advancement in data preparation, a lot of these newer algorithms now allow information consumers to visualize and obtain relevant information within the data with more ease. Enhancements such as automatically revealing clusters, links, exceptions, correlation and predictions with pieces of data, eliminate the need for end users to build data models or write algorithms themselves.

This new form of augmented data discovery will lead to an increase in the number of citizen data scientist—which include information users who, with the aid of augmented assistance can now identify and respond to various patterns in data faster and a more distributed model.

  1. AugmentedData Science

It is important to note that the rise of citizen data scientist will not in any way eliminate the need for a data scientist who gathers and analyze data to discover profitable opportunities for the growth of a business. However, as these data scientists give room for citizen data scientists to perform the easier tasks, their overall analysis becomes more challenging and equally valuable to the business.

As time goes by, machine learning would be applied in other areas such as feature and model selection. This would free up some of the tasks performed by data scientist and allow them focus on the most important part of their job, which is to identify specific patterns in the data that can potentially transform business operations and ultimately increase revenue.

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M

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Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study

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The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”

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