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Exploring vulnerability of winter trails in northern communities

By Emilie Bourque Whittle | April 26, 2012

Rudy Riedlsperger, a graduate student in Memorial’s Department of Geography, knows the importance and vulnerability of northern Labrador’s winter trails. He recently returned from fieldwork in Nunatsiavut and has plenty to share.

He’s doing just that at a conference happening currently in Montreal, Que. Running April 22-27, the International Polar Year conference, titled From Knowledge to Action, is one of the largest scientific conferences for polar science and climate change.

A summary of Mr. Riedlsperger’s conference abstract is available on YouTube.

“My supervisor, Dr. Trevor Bell, has long been involved in climate change-related research in Labrador,” said Mr. Riedlsperger. “This particular project was in part informed by climate change conferences and workshops where Labradorians identified travel and infrastructure safety as an important priority in dealing with the impacts of climate variability and change.”

Among thousands of conference delegates from more than 40 countries, many representatives from Memorial are scheduled to give oral and poster presentations throughout the conference.

Mr. Riedlsperger, originally from Salzburg, Austria, spent a few years living in Alaska before moving to Canada in 2010. He gained a MA in northern studies from the University of Alaska Fairbanks before coming to Memorial.

Mr. Riedlsperger’s work highlights the necessity of winter trails in the North, as they provide access to hunting grounds, ice fishing spots and firewood areas.

“Access to these places puts food on the table and heats homes," said Mr. Riedlsperger. “It is crucial to ensure unimpeded access to subsistence areas for the quality of life for people in the region.”

His two presentations at the conference cover both changing trails and trail use over the past several decades and the impacts of climate variability, along with socio-economic factors, on access to areas that are important for subsistence winter activities such as hunting and collecting firewood.

As shown through his research, a changing climate can compromise reliable trails for northern dwellers. Mr. Riedlsperger said he hopes people learn from his presentations that, although ongoing coping mechanisms are in place, there’s a bigger picture to look at.

“People adapt their travel routes or collect firewood at different times of the year. However, there is no long-term adaptation in place -- no framework that would allow people to adapt thoroughly to anticipated changes beforehand.”

He hopes his research is useful to the people he’s worked with up north.

“I think the discipline of geography can provide us with the tools to make a real, positive impact for people living in remote, northern communities.”

Mr. Riedlsperger also hopes the benefits of his work in Labrador can be far-reaching, beyond Canadian borders.

“Research in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions informs us with important information on how climate variability and change affects the physical environment as well as communities' and individuals' livelihoods,” he said. “This can be beneficial for regions that have not yet experienced these kinds of changes.”