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Observatory to monitor global warming (3/02)

By Michael Lynch Heinz Rilling is a happy man when it snows in Marathon. "This winter has been brutal," says Rilling, owner of Marathon Motors Sports. His livelihood is dependent on snow, and lots of it.

By Michael Lynch

Heinz Rilling is a happy man when it snows in Marathon.

"This winter has been brutal," says Rilling, owner of Marathon Motors Sports. His livelihood is dependent on snow, and lots of it. Rilling, who sells and services snowmobiles, has seen a 50 per-cent drop in business this winter.

"I've been in business for six years and four of the six have been bad ones," Rilling says.

Although Rilling says he has not thought much about the cause of the mild winter in Northern Ontario, issues surrounding global warming have crossed his mind, he says.

"Global warming is here, it's happening now, and its impacts are accelerating," says Gordon Ringius, director of the soon to be opened Observatory Earth Inc., located at Quetico Centre near Atikokan.

Observatory Earth Inc. will be the first of its kind in Canada and will assist governments and industry in understanding climate change. It will provide ecosystem monitoring using a variety of techniques, ranging from ground-based, hands-on observations to remote satellite sensing.

The observatory, expected to be in operation in 2002-03, will focus on Quetico Provincial Park and the Boundary Waters area that borders Quetico, as well as on the industrially developed intervening landscape. The region contains the confluence of three vegetative zones and three climactic zones (boreal, St. Lawrence and prairie), as well as the headwaters of three major watersheds (Mississippi, Arctic and St. Lawrence). The earth observatory will be linked to Canada’s Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Network and the International Long-Term Ecological Research Network. It will eventually be linked to ecological research organizations around the world, some of which may include: the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; Climate Impacts Research Centre, Abisko, Sweden; Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Potsdam, Germany; Institute of Nature Conservation, Kliniekstraat 25 1070 Brussels, Belgium; and Lakehead University, Confederation College, University of Toronto, the University of Western Ontario, and other university research programs across Canada and the United States.

Ringius says winters in Northern Ontario are getting shorter and warmer and will have an impact on industry in the north.

"These changes are going to have a significant impact on the region's tourism and forestry sectors," he says.

A large number of abnormal developments in weather patterns is evidence global warming is occuring, Ringius says.

An absence of winter frost in the late autumn over the past l0 years has allowed the pine-bark beetle to flourish and devastate huge tracts of log pole pine in British Columbia. Continued warming will increase the problem, Ringius predicts.

The building of temporary ice roads that supply 30 First Nation communities in Northern Ontario was delayed this year. The roads, which last for approximately eight weeks, are used to supply the reserves with fuel and other bulk materials.

Since 1980, Canadian scientists have been studying the freeze-thaw cycles of four lakes in the Turkey Lake watershed, located 50 kilometres north of Sault Ste Marie. The four lakes froze over in 1980 on November 14. In 1999 the lakes froze over on December 18. The scientific data shows a definite trend towards a later date in the year for permanent ice formation.

The winter tourism industry around Lake Superior has been clobbered this winter as a result of above normal temperatures and a lack of snow.

"(Snowmobiling tourism is) the worst in 42 years," says Nancy Tulloch, regional manager of the North of Superior Snowmobile Association. "Riders from Wisconsin and Minnesota aren’t coming this year because we have no snow."

The snowmobile trails around Hornpayne opened during the third week of January. Each winter the community attracts a growing number of Michigan snowmobile riders. Brian Rivard, manager of the Hallmark Centre Inn estimates "the late start to the season cost the community $200,000."

An acting area forester for the Ministry of Natural Resources in Thunder Bay says the MNR is interested in the establishment of a climatic change observatory at Quetico, but he is cautious in providing a full endorsement.

Don Nixon says the jury is still out on how recent weather-related events impact the forest.

"It's difficult to say definitively if global warming will have a significant effect," he says.

He does however concede that global warming is a topic of discussion among forestry researchers. Last spring Canadian forestry research scientists met to discuss the impact of global warming.

Nixon says the boreal forest has evolved over thousands of years and there are numerous factors that cause change in it.

"The forest composition is different since man’s intrusion, including harvesting and forest fires that were started as a result of man's presence," Nixon says.