Community-driven research North of 60

Northwest Territories landscape, local people, and researchers

In 2014, 3.4 million hectares of forest land burned across the Northwest Territories at a cost of $56.1 million. In comparison, the 20-year average for the territory is 570,000 hectares of land burned costing ~$7.5 million a year. The main culprit for the scale of the 2014 fires were climate change and very dry conditions, in fact it was deemed to be the driest season in 40 years.

Although disconcerting to the eyes of the general public, forest fires do play a critical role in northern boreal forests, such as being required for seed germination by some plants. What is of concern however, are increases in the intensity and extent of forest fires, such as the one in 2014, as well as increases in frequency, that could lead to imbalances in naturally occurring fire-followed-by-regeneration processes.

Kristen Bill, an M.Sc. student at the University of Guelph, is studying how fire activity driven by climate change may be impacting the “dynamic boreal forest floor vegetation” in areas of the Northwest Territories. Specifically, she is recording the types of lichens and mosses that can be found at varying times post-fire and at varying soil moisture levels in order to better understand how these ecosystems are affected by fire. Vegetation such as lichens are an important food source to animals including the threatened woodland caribou, which is an important cultural and subsistence component of many northern communities.

Kristen is an enthusiastic advocate of “community-driven research” and was fortunate to have the support and knowledge of elders in the town of Behchoko where her and her crew of 4 research technicians from the University of Guelph stayed for 7 weeks last summer while they conducted their field surveys in the surrounding area.

“Elders have a rich understanding of the land and notice changes” said Kristen when asked about the importance of connecting with the local community. An elder also encouraged the research team to attend the T’licho Youth Summit that was held in Behchoko. There they hosted a booth featuring their research which generated interest in the local youth who were considering pursuing careers in the environmental field.

Engaging with the community presented some challenges however, for locals and researchers alike. The slower pace of life and work in the North required some flexibility on the part of the crew from southern Ontario who was operating under a tight schedule. From the point of view of locals on the other hand, a common request is for visiting researchers to spend more time building relationships within communities and have locals be more involved in conducting field work. 

With a busy summer of field work behind her, Kristen looks forward to continuing to work towards narrowing the gap between communities and scientists, this time in Hamilton, her home town. She will be reaching out to schools to present her research in the hopes to stir interest and curiosity in northern ecosystems and the challenges that they face. 


Kristen Bill works under the supervision of Dr. Merritt Turetsky, Associate Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Guelph. Dr. Turetsky’s research group studies carbon, nutrient, and energy cycling within ecosystems located primarily in the Arctic and Boreal regions of Alaska and northwestern Canada.