Sleds and climate change

NIOO scientist Jeff Harvey about his sledhauling journey accross Algonquin Park in Canada

The route in Algonquin ParkAt the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) in Wageningen there are numerous enthusiastic ecologists. But sometimes something happens that makes them even happier than normal. This month, for example, senior scientist Jeff Harvey returned from a 4-week sledhauling journey across Algonquin Park in his native Ontario, Canada with his high school friend Mark Williamson, also a biologist. Two men in their fifties pushing themselves to their limits on a 170 kilometer trip that had never been done before in winter, exploring the effects of climate change on the way.
Jeff: “On our trip we experienced climate change at first hand. It was 12 degrees warmer than average, with around -2 oC during the day and -10 at night. This was okay for us, it was cold enough in our sleeping bags as it was, but for nature this is a big deal.
On all maps of life zones or ecosystem zones you can see that Algonquin is on the very southern edge of the boreal coniferous forest, with the acid soils that go with the type. Within a zone, species can migrate northward fairly easily with a warming climate. But what happens when species hit the border of a different zone? In my work as an ecologist I work on shifting zones, and here I could see it in real.

Windigo, ancient Indian spirit

During our traverse we didn’t meet any other humans for 20 days. We had to use a satellite (SAT) phone for communication and had just each other for company. Sometimes during our ‘polar plod’ we heard was a whistling sound emanating from nearby forests. Mark explained that this is Windigo, an ancient Indian spirit who visits camp sites and looks after travelers. Or, an alternative explanation: the wind in the trees.
But we did meet and see traces of a lot of wildlife that’s typical for these boreal forests: the snowshoe hare, the Canada lynx, the moose, the grey jay, the wolf, the marten and the fisher. When they move north, what’s going to replace them? Just south of the park lies the life zone of the eastern deciduous forest, with soils that have a much higher pH and their own communities of plants and animals. These species can’t simply move north into Algonquin. And most animals are closely linked with the plants, so what will happen to them? In a way climate change is a live ecological experiment. I think there’s going to be the inevitable extinction of species, and with reduced interactions, ecological stability will be reduced as well. The whole system will become more unstable and susceptible to future perturbations.

Only the beginning

This trip was only the beginning for me and Mark. I lost 11 kilograms, Mark got frostbite on his face, and hauling 3 sleds of 60 kilograms felt like an 8 hour work-out in the gym every day. When at the end we thought we could follow a road, it turned out that ice rain had brought trees down across the track, and we had to lift our sleds over tree trunks, or maneuver around them. Although I’m normally quite a gourmet, sometimes breadsticks with peanut butter felt like heaven for us. But it was fantastic. The experience and the sense of achievement are addictive. We have talked about crossing Iceland in winter for ages, and now that we’ve managed this, anything is possible!”
Jeff and Mark reported on their trip on Facebook:
Mark en Jeff op hun tocht
Jeff en Mark on their trip