1,000 year Arctic storm linked to climate change: study

A study says that a howling beast of an Arctic storm that caused the worst flooding in 1,000 years backs up predictions that climate change will cause unprecedented and unpredictably violent weather.

``It's exactly what one would predict with increased warming,'' said John Smol, a Queen's University scientist and co-author of a paper published Monday in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Smol's team looked at a catastrophic storm that battered Canada's northwest coast near Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T, in September 1999. The researchers found that high winds, combined with lower-than-average sea ice, sent a torrent of water inland that was so large its effects continue to this day.

That salty surge killed more than half of all the alder shrubs up to 20 kilometres from the coast. Another third of the ones remaining died within five years.

Residual salt in the soil still poisons plants trying to revegetate the area. Lakes remain saltier than lakes that weren't swamped by the sea water.

A bad storm, certainly. But to be a possible result of climate change, it had to be the worst storm ever. Arctic weather records don't go back very far and even tree-ring analysis only reached back about 80 years.

That left lake sediments, which offer a clear and precisely datable record of weather patterns.

``It's a history book,'' said Smol. ``We can reconstruct past environmental change.''

By examining tiny fossilized plants in the sediments, Smol and his team concluded the influx of salt water that occurred in 1999 was unique.

``We could push that record as far back as the sediment core went, which was over 1,000 years. We know, based on that information, that this event is unprecedented.''

It is, however, something that climate models say to expect.

``Every model out there predicts this should happen,'' Smol said.

``It's another sad example of things that are going to be happening-another example of the environmental effects of climate change.''

The study has big implications for Arctic communities since most are located on coastlines.

Smol points out climate change is happening faster in the Arctic than anywhere else in the world and many scientists consider events in the North a foretaste of what's coming elsewhere.

``This is not really good news,'' he said. ``It's an issue that's going to be faced by coastal communities everywhere.''

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