Northern waters are a valuable part of Canada’s natural and cultural heritage:
- Many northern people experience strong spiritual links to waters that connect them to the Earth, its cycles and their ancient beginnings.
- Northern rivers and lakes are home to many unique species of wildlife including the famous Arctic char. Some populations of char live entirely in fresh water and some are anadromous (seagoing but they spawn in fresh water), but both are important food sources for local people and contribute to local economies through commercial and sport fishing.
- Northern waterways are original "highways" for Aboriginal people and explorers. They continue to provide recreational and economic opportunities.
- Northern marine ecosystems support marine mammals found only in the Arctic, such as the walrus, bowhead whale, narwhal, polar bear and several species of seals.
- Many of the world's population of migratory birds use Arctic river deltas and coastlines as key habitat.
- The permanent ice covering much of the northern seas increases the albedo effect — the reflection of solar energy from the surface of the ice. This helps to slow warming of the Earth's climate.
Canada's North is one of the most sensitive regions on the planet even though it is far from the Earth's main human population centres. Ecosystems are fragile and easily damaged by our actions.
- Global climate change is causing sea ice to melt. The loss of this reflective ice surface (the albedo effect) leads to more warming of the climate and the loss of important ice habitat for polar bears, walruses and ringed seals. As ice melts, it also dilutes salt water and upsets the natural composition of marine food webs.
- Hydroelectric power developments, though considered a source of renewable energy, can create environmental impacts that include:
- dams that block migration and travel routes for fish, often cutting them off from key spawning and feeding grounds
- flooding of lands behind the dams with the destruction of terrestrial habitats and release of pollutants such as mercury
- seasonal and daily changes in river water flow, leaving too little water for fish at some times and too much at other times
- diversion of water from one drainage basin (watershed) to another that allows undesirable alien species to colonize new areas and reduces nutrients to the estuaries of diverted rivers
- Oil spills that occur through oil exploration, development and transportation pollute key habitats such as shorelines, ice floes and open water areas. Improper storage and disposal of waste oil and gasoline on smaller scales also adds up to bad news for rivers and coasts.
- Increased shipping and oil exploration can result in collisions between ships and marine mammals, or can disrupt wildlife feeding and mating.
- Agricultural and industrial pollutants produced in populated areas are carried northward by air and ocean currents and dumped into rivers and lakes. Pollutants such as Persistent Organic Pollutants, heavy metals and radioactive compounds concentrate in northern food chains and are thought to cause deformities, cancers and other health issues in wildlife and people.
Lethal Northern Food Webs
Northern food chains and webs can be long and complex, often overlapping between terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems. At the top are traditional northern people such as the Cree and Inuit who get much of their food through hunting and fishing. Most of us would prefer to be at the top of food chains and webs, but with toxic chemicals, heavy metals and radioactive elements accumulating in the environment, eating traditional foods is becoming a concern. Learn more about northern food webs and the problem of contaminants by visiting the Inuit of Canada's website. Also, find the activity, "Lethal Legacy".
Canada’s North serves as an early-warning system for the planet because it’s so sensitive to human-induced change. Many agencies and organizations protect northern natural areas. For example:
- Fresh- and saltwater-related legislation and strategies by the federal government provide frameworks for protection. Examples are the Fisheries and Oceans' Marine Protected Areas, Parks Canada's National Marine Conservation Areas and National Parks, Environment Canada's National Wildlife Areas, migratory bird sanctuaries and wetlands of international importance.
- Federal, provincial and territorial governments protect areas through such systems as parks and ecological reserves. Many of our northern national parks, for example, protect lakes, rivers and offshore areas.
- Organizations such as the Canadian Heritage River System (established in 1984 through a partnership between federal, provincial and territorial governments) protect examples of Canada's river heritage. As of March 2007, 40 rivers have been named. The goal is to raise awareness of natural and cultural values and to encourage enjoyment of this heritage resource.
What You Can Do
These good-news stories are not enough to protect the North. We can each take action, starting from our own home, school and backyard, to protect Canada's North from threats such as climate change and pollution.
Here's where to start:
- Raise awareness. Spread the word among friends, family members and the school community and families about the value and importance of northern rivers and marine areas. Plan bulletin board and information displays, articles in the local paper or festivals during Rivers to Oceans Week that focus on a local river, a Canadian Heritage River, a marine area or northern ocean.
- Shut down global climate change from your home and at school:
- Plant a native tree in your backyard or in your schoolyard to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
- Encourage school administrators and parents at home to use energy-efficient appliances.
- Explore the availability of "green" energy from wind or other renewable sources for use at your school.
- Encourage teachers and parents to reduce the use of their cars. Ask them to consider an energy-efficient vehicle when replacement time comes. Burning fossil fuels (such as gasoline) puts climate-changing "greenhouse gases" directly into the air.
- Reduce, reuse and recycle. It takes less energy to create products from recycled goods than from raw materials.
- Cut pollution off at the source. Toxic cleaners and chemical compounds that go down our drains or onto our lawns can eventually make their way into food chains and the watersheds that connect us to Canada's northern waters. And remember: people are a part of those food chains, too!
- Write to members of Parliament for action on pollution and climate change.
- Use less electricity. Turn off lights and turn down the thermostat.
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