Climate Change at the Arctic's Edge
Having just returned from Antarctica, people asked me, where to next? Well, the Arctic was the most obvious choice, pole to pole as it were! I'd had my eye on the "Climate Change at the Arctic's Edge" Earthwatch project for over a year, so when an opening came up for the winter team, I jumped at it.
Having traveled for about 50 hours from Melbourne, including 30 hours by train from Winnipeg, I arrived in Churchill to a -59C wind chill, what a shock! Just a taste of what was to come in the next few days.
Churchill is an amazing place for many reasons: the main place to see polar bears in Canada, the northern lights, the beluga whales in summer and the birds & wildflowers in the spring. It's also within the zone where the forests end and the permafrost and tundra begin.
I settled into my shared room with two other gals from the US and the UK at the CNSC (Churchill Northern Studies Centre), very comfortable indeed! Although the hallway between the dining room/main study room and the bedrooms didn't have heating and meant a very quick run. But at the end of the corridor was the dinning room, where all manor of wonderful foods were cooked up for us. It was NOT the place to start a diet!
Our group included people from Australia, UK, US and Japan. After an introduction presentation on the work we would be on doing the first night, Dr Pete Kershaw also talked about climate change, the permafrost and why Churchill is a significant site. Over the next week, we had some lectures at night on the polar bear, the Aurora Borealis and some of our team shared stories of previous Earthwatch exhibitions. Dr Pete's assistants, Leeanne and Carly, were so helpful and fun, as was Dr Pete himself, lots of jokes and laughs.
Our first two days were 'inside days', as the weather was at a dangerous temperature (above -40C with the wind chill), so we assisted with cleaning equipment, helping update the project's data on the website and removing old equipment from storerooms. We also did a trial of our gear out in the -50C weather, for about 30 minutes. It took about 30 minutes to get all the gear on! But by the end of the second week, I was doing it in about 12 minutes. We survived the test!
We finally got to venture out in the qamutiks (sleds drawn behind the snow mobiles), which isn't as fun as it sounds...No suspension and a very cold trip to our test sites each day. But the landscape! Oh so beautiful. Stark, bright, white, clean and stunning. What a wonderful place to work in. No wonder Dr Pete loves it so much.
Our task was to dig a pit in the snow (between 2cm to 2 metres, depending on the site) and take various measurements, including temperature at 5cm intervals, air temperature, snow crystal types, snow density, snow hardness and taking snow core samples at various points around the pit. We also took some of the snow from each pit back to the lab to test for pH level and conductivity levels.
Each night we would input our data from the field in the computer room and one person (me in this case!) would collect all the data from the group to maintain the master data document for Dr Pete. We would also have to test the snow each night after it melted. We tested 10 sites during our two weeks.
It was very hard working in those temperatures and getting used to moving around with all the clothing on (I hired my boots, parka and pants in Churchill). Try writing data with three pairs of gloves on and your goggles icing up!! Although it was frustrating at times, I just had to look around me to see how beautiful it was and it was all worth it. We did have a day off and we went for a dog sled ride. Yes, it is wonderful fun and so peaceful, the dogs are just gorgeous.
We also visited the Churchill Museum, which although small, was excellent and had some amazing Inuit art and wildlife information. The CNSC also has a special room with a dome for watching the northern lights. After a lifetime of wanting to see them, I did! White, soft curtains, moving slowly across the bright clear starry sky... just magic.
But after going all the way to Churchill, I didn't see a polar bear. Which, considering we were out in the open in the wilderness, isn't such a bad thing. They are BIG and SCARY! Best to see them from the safety of a tundra buggy in October/November, when they are moving onto the ice on Hudson Bay.
All too soon our 12 days were up and we were all packed and on the way back home via plane/train. But as I watched the tundra fall away from me as I flew back to Winnipeg, I felt so fulfilled. I'd helped collect data on the most important issue facing the world today; climate change. Using this data, Dr Pete can show what exactly we are doing to the Earth, and why it's such a great idea to Earth...Watch!
By Liz Headland - Earthwatch volunteer
Learn more about Climate Change at the Arctic's Edge and how you can help scientists monitor the Arctic's vast stores of greenhouse gasses.