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Description of Research Area

The Arctic is changing rapidly with increasingly warm conditions. Sea ice, which is central to Arctic marine habits, both in terms of physical structure and biological productivity, is declining rapidly and this is predicted to severely impact many marine mammals. What models of the effects of climate change often lack is a truly long-term perspective. My research is the Arctic is geared towards contributing to this area by investigating how Arctic marine ecosystem have varied over the long term. These projects utilize isotopic analysis of faunal materials (seals, walrus, whales, polar bears, caribou, muskox, foxes) from archaeological sites in northern Canada, Greenland, and Alaska. Some of the major questions we are interested in addressing are:

  • How has sea ice productivity varied over the course of the Holocene?

  • How has the ecology of various Arctic marine mammals changed over the last 4,000 years? Are the changes being observed in the Arctic today truly unprecedented or have they occurred before?

  • How does benthic-pelagic coupling vary across space and time in the Arctic? How has it been impacted by historic and recent warming? 

  • Was the terrestrial landscape in the Arctic altered significantly through the deposition of marine refuse by the presence of human populations? 

  • Are changes in human subsistence practices and settlement patterns correlated with larger environmental changes?

This research was recently awarded an NSERC Discovery Grant ($180,500 2020-2026).

Opportunities are currently available for graduate students interested in this research area.

Representative Publications

  • Routledge J, Sonne C, Letcher RJ, Dietz R, Szpak P, 2023. Unprecedented shift in Canadian High Arctic polar bear food web unsettles four millennia of stability. Anthropocene 43, 100397. doi: 10.1016/j.ancene.2023.100397. [DOWNLOAD .pdf]

  • Szpak P, Buckley M, 2020. Sulfur isotopes (δ34S) in Arctic marine mammals: Indicators of benthic vs. pelagic foraging? Marine Ecology Progress Series.

  • Szpak P, Julien M-H, Royle TCA, Savelle JM, Yang DY, Richards MP, 2020. Sexual differences in the foraging ecology of 19th century beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) from the Canadian High Arctic. Marine Mammal Science 36, 451-471. doi:10.1111/mms.12655. [DOWNLOAD .pdf]

  • Szpak P, Savelle JM, Conolly J, Richards MP, 2019. Variation in late Holocene marine environments in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago: Evidence from ringed seal bone collagen stable isotope compositions. Quaternary Science Reviews 211, 136-155. doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2019.03.016. [DOWNLOAD .pdf]

  • Szpak P, Buckley M, Darwent CM, Richards MP, 2018. Long-term ecological changes in marine mammals driven by recent warming in northwestern Alaska. Global Change Biology 24, 490-503. doi:10.1111/gcb.13880. [DOWNLOAD .pdf]

  • Skovrind M, Castruita JAS, Haile J, Treadaway EC, Gopalakrishnan S, Westbury MV, Heide-Jørgensen MP, Szpak P, Lorenzen ED, 2019. Hybridization between two high Arctic cetaceans confirmed by genomic analysis. Scientific Reports 9, 7729. doi:10.1038/s41598-019-44038-0. [DOWLOAD .pdf]

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