V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Fallout Zone

Toronto Sun, Sun Media papers, October, 2007.

YELLOWKNIFE -- James Pugsley stops mid-conversation, peers closer at the night sky, and yells to get out of the car. "Get out quickly," he shouts excitedly, having perceived something in the distance that, to the untrained eye, looks uneventful.

But sure enough, the sky is ablaze. Undulating waves of light flit playfully across the midnight sky. The way the light moves is ghostly, fluttering gently the way sheer chiffon moves in a light wind.

The aurora borealis is in her full glory now, at about 2 a.m. Earlier that night, Pugsley, a young, transplanted Torontonian who moved to Yellowknife five years ago, explained why a city boy decided to pitch tent in a small town in Canada's cold North.

"This is what it's all about," says the 32-year-old creator of the Astronomy North website (astronomynorth.com). "The opportunities for adventure are limitless. There couldn't be a more important phenomenon to watch than the northern lights. There are few examples of the planet interacting with a star, our sun."

The sky is important to the economy of the North. Hotels were built around the aurora-viewing business in Yellowknife to accommodate the tens of thousands of tourists who descend on the city every year.

Elders and aboriginals look to the sky to predict weather patterns. And some watchers are saying that the sky is slowly falling.

"We can tell the weather by the way the sun goes down," says Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus. "Normally we have an idea of what the weather will be like for the next few weeks, but it's so erratic now you're lucky if we can see the next two to three days."

Northerners have long accepted that climate change is a fact, says Emery Paquin, director of the Environmental Protection Division of the Northwest Territories government.

"From our perspective, climate change is real," Paquin says in his office. "We've seen the changes and have already had to begin to adapt."

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, if mean global temperatures rise 2 C above pre-industrial levels between 2026 and 2060 as projected, they will trigger an unstoppable chain reaction.

An average global rise in temperature of 2 C will cause the Arctic -- which is hardest hit by climate change -- to warm between 3 C and 6 C.

For every 1 C increase, an area of sea ice the size of Alaska melts.

Boreal forests will push northward and squeeze out up to 60% of critical tundra habitats for birds like ravens, loons and falcons, as well as lemmings, arctic foxes and caribou. Food chains are short in the Arctic, the WWF report says. So when a species is removed, the ripple effect hits the ecosystem hard.

If God created the world in seven days, this week Sun Media looks at how climate change is undoing the work in seven ways.

Warmer temperatures are inviting alien species to make themselves at home in Canada, often with devastating effect. Sea squirts, globular soft-bodied animals that attach themselves to lines of cultured mussels, are wreaking havoc in Atlantic Canada. Indigenous species, meanwhile, like the mountain pine beetle, are basking in warmer winters and feasting their way through Western Canada's forests.

Talks to build a 1,220-km natural gas pipeline to the Mackenzie Delta are currently underway -- a project that lay dormant for about 30 years until now, as the world braces for an energy crunch and seeks cleaner fuel sources.

It's feared the polar bear -- held up as the innocent poster-child of climate change around the world -- will become a sacrificial lamb in Canada and mere legend.

Rising temperatures are projected to reduce the freshwater levels of the Great Lakes. They will also alter the distribution, migration and breeding behaviours of birds and put many species at risk of extinction.

And finally, as will be examined on Day 7 of this series, we'll look at how climate change affects Canadians.

"The big thing that bothers people here is that to a large extent, this isn't our doing," Chief Erasmus says. "We have to appeal to others to change their habits."

Part 1 of a special 7 day series

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