An interdisciplinary approach to monitoring the hydroecology of thermokarst lakes in Old Crow Flats, Yukon Territory, Canada
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Lake-rich thermokarst landscapes, such as Old Crow Flats (OCF) in northern Yukon, Canada have been identified as amongst the most vulnerable to climate change. This has raised concerns of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation (VGFN) and Parks Canada (Vuntut National Park) about the ecological integrity of this significant wetland. The influence of climate change on the hydroecological conditions of thermokarst lakes are complex and vary across the landscape, thus long-term hydroecological monitoring is essential to adequately assess the ecological integrity of the aquatic ecosystem and how it is changing over time. In a genuine interdisciplinary and collaborative approach, this thesis establishes an integrated approach using isotope hydrology, aquatic ecology, and paleolimnology to develop a robust long-term aquatic monitoring program that has already been adopted by Parks Canada. In collaboration with Parks Canada, 14 of 58 lakes that were previously studied during the International Polar Year from 2007-09 were selected to represent monitoring lakes. Lakes were sampled in early June and late August/early September 2010-11. Water samples for analysis of hydrogen and oxygen isotope composition and chemistry (i.e., ions and nutrients) were collected to track hydrological and limnological conditions. Artificial substrates were deployed in June and accrued algae were collected at the end of the ice-free season to assess community composition and abundance. Sediment coring was conducted in a culturally-significant lake (Zelma Lake – OCF06) to reconstruct long-term baseline hydroecological conditions over the past three centuries. Radiometric dating techniques (137Cs, 210Pb) were used to develop a sediment core chronology. Baseline hydroecological conditions were reconstructed through analyses of loss-on-ignition, bulk organic carbon and nitrogen elemental and isotope compositions, and pigments. Meteorological data and a multi-year evaporation pan experiment were used to develop a robust isotope framework, which provides the basis for interpreting five years (2007-11) of lake water isotope measurements and deriving knowledge of hydrological conditions for the monitoring lakes. Using this framework and the coupled-isotope tracer method, isotopic compositions of input water (δI) and evaporation-to-inflow (E/I) ratios were calculated and provide key hydrological information for each sampling interval. δ¬I values distinguish snowmelt- and rainfall-sourced lakes, with δP representing a threshold between the two isotopic-based hydrologic regimes. A Mann-Kendall test showed that three lakes (OCF11, 26, and 49) displayed significant increasing trends in δI values indicating a potential transition from snowmelt-sourced to rainfall-sourced isotope-based hydrologic-regimes. E/I ratios >0.5 signifies lakes that are evaporation-dominated with positive water balances and E/I ratios >1 indicates lakes that are evaporation-dominated with negative water balances. Six lakes in OCF (OCF06, 19, 37, 46, 49, and 58) surpass the 0.5 threshold and three of these lakes (OCF06, 19, and 46) crossed the significant evaporation threshold (E/I > 1) during dry climatic conditions. Multi-proxy paleolimnology analysis conducted on Zelma Lake reveals different hydroecological transitions during the past ~330 years that include: phase 1 (~1678-1900) characterized by stable hydroecological conditions; thermokarst expansion (~1900-1943) marked by decreases in productivity; phase 2 (~1943-2007) distinguished by increasing productivity; and a post drainage phase following rapid drainage in 2007 characterized by further increases in productivity. The stratigraphy of Zelma Lake shows that hydroecological conditions in dynamic landscapes such as OCF are complex and require multi-proxy paleolimnological analysis. In particular, organic matter, δ13Corg, and pigment concentrations are important parameters to consider when interpreting past hydroecological conditions, thermokarst expansion, and lake drainage events.