To the farthest frontier

By Ruth Davenport

It seems logical that in a country such as Canada, research on ice would be as common as mukluks. However, University of Calgary geography professor John Yackel is one of a small band of pioneers just starting forays into understanding all the frozen stuff.

"In terms of the ratio of numbers of people studying per unit area, it’s understudied by far," said Yackel. "You have hundreds and hundreds of researchers studying little watersheds in Southern Ontario, but only one researcher per hundred square kilometre area in the Arctic."

Yackel was hired as an assistant professor in the Department of Geography’s Master’s in Geographic Information Systems, a new one-year course-based program. He teaches a core course on remote sensing techniques directly related to those used in his study of Arctic ice.

"I use a technique called microwave remote sensing," he explained. "A microwave sensor is on board a satellite platform and images the earth twice a day. My research involves using a time series evolution of data, images from January through the summer."

Along with his U of C professorial duties, Yackel is one of the principal investigators working on the Collaborative Interdisciplinary Cryospheric Experiment, a multi-year field experiment that incorporates individual projects focusing on interactions between sea ice and the arctic environment.

"You can consider the Arctic as either a white surface, snow on top of land or sea ice, or a much darker surface when all the snow melts and we have land and ocean water," said Yackel. "In a climate context, the two surfaces have different reflective abilities. Snow reflects 90 per cent of all the incoming energy back into atmosphere. But if we have open ocean, 90 per cent of the energy is absorbed. So sunlight heats the ocean which then melts more sea ice and creates more open ocean, so we have a feedback loop in effect."

Yackel explained how the inertia of the feedback loop poses a grim picture for arctic ice cover.

"Some U.S. scientists have shown in the last 25 years using satellite data that there’s been a declining trend in sea ice concentration in the Arctic, both in extent and in thickness," he said. "We have this feedback mechanism in place, we have enough greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that to reverse the trend would take a long time, so we could be too late."

The results of the unique research conducted by Yackel and field researchers with C-ICE indicate that the consequences of the thinning Arctic ice are numerous and far-reaching.

"We’re not concerned so much with the cause of the change, we’re concerned with the spatial and temporal manifestation of that change," he said. "How are the dynamics of the sea ice, ocean and atmostphere all integrated, how is that manifested in changes to the environment, those being human, marine mammal or changes to physical environment."

The thinning ice cover could have political consequences for Canadians. The North-West Passage is a critical shipping canal that traverses the Arctic and is traditionally governed by Canadian authority. If the decrease in sea ice thickness and extent persists, the passage could remain open for longer periods of time and experience higher traffic.

"It could be an economic windfall if we charge duties on ships," said Yackel. "But there could be a political issue over whether these are international waters when Canada claims them as part of Canadian territory."

More information on the MGIS program can be found at

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