When I was a child, I used to catch holy hell from my mother for digging holes in our front yard. I needed the dirt for the mud pies I served at tea parties for my friends.
I'm beyond mud pies now, but my long-forgotten hole-digging abilities came in handy recently when I found my way to an outpost in northern Manitoba to dig for science.
It was the summer of 2000, and I was one of a slew of intrepid Earthwatch volunteers helping to gather baseline data for a long-term study of global warming. Hole digging was about the only "skill" I brought to this effort, but Earthwatch is used to taking lay people like me who show up with energy and will and figuring out how to make us useful.
In this case, we showed up in Churchill, Manitoba, a sparsely populated outpost on the shores of Hudson Bay. The town is known for its polar bears, birds, and the 25,000 beluga whales who surface every summer. There is no road to Churchill; you fly in or take a 36-hour train from Winnipeg to the end of the line.
Churchill may be far from anywhere, but as our principal investigator Peter Scott told us, it is in the center of the North American Continent if you don't count Mexico. And as such, it is an ideal place from which to study global warming. It is home to a rich ecosystem and a large diversity of plants. It has the widest temperature range on earth (from 40 degrees below F to 90 degrees above). The Earthwatch teams during 2000 can attest to the dramatic climates. On July 4, the Americans built a snowman; those of us who arrived in August roasted.
We were based at the Churchill Northern Studies Center on the grounds of a former rocket testing site, now one of the premier research institutions of its kind in the world. Our volunteer tasks were varied, but the aim of most everything we did was to calculate carbon content, an indication of global warming.
We learned the true "art" of digging holes: With a machete, we neatly sliced 20cm x 20cm squares in the tundra at 10 meter intervals. We dug hundreds of these holes. We carefully reached under each square and pulled it out. We measured the depth of the line between the top layer of peat and the sand below, and then put the whole thing back where it came from. Except for the places where we took samples back to the lab, you could hardly tell we had been there.
Our team also set up shop at a gravel pad, a leftover clearing from the days of the rocket center. We collected every living thing we found in 5 x 5 meter plots (and I mean everything except moss). Even a 5 x 5 meter plot seems big when you are lying on your stomach, turning over every piece of gravel to look for growing things. We took the plants back to the lab, identified the species, weighed and dried them, ground them up, and then fired them in special ovens and weighed the ash to get our measure of carbon content.
We rotated tasks in the field, with one volunteer, whistle at the ready, always on bear watch. Polar bears come ashore when the ice melts in Hudson Bay, and they usually hang out on their own until the bay freezes again in the fall, a span of time which has been growing as temperatures rise. Although the bears rarely approach people, we were warned of their potential danger, their size (huge) and their speed (fast). We couldn't take tuna sandwiches to the field, for example, because bears have a strong sense of smell. And we were not allowed to walk around outside by ourselves. Peter always had a gun in the field, just in case. Students and research staff staying at the center even carried rifles when they went jogging.
A consummate storyteller, Peter combined our field and lab work with lectures and driving tours. Since it was light until almost midnight, we had plenty of time to see the sights after our duties were done for the day. Peter knows every nook and cranny of the area and we saw most of them:
- The local jail, which is for polar bears that get too close to town for comfort (We were quizzed before we left to see if we remembered the number of cells in the polar bear jail-there are 28.);
- The airport, which has a runway long enough for transcontinental jets to land in an emergency, but regularly hosts only small props. (When the Canadian government ordered airports to increase security some years ago, Churchill put up a "No Trespassing" sign and a fence.);
- Miss Piggy, a plane that didn't exactly crash, but didn't make it to the runway back in 1979, and has become a local gathering site of some note;
the grounds of the study center, which still sport artifacts from its history as a rocket science station (The entrance to the center is marked by a missile.);
- The armies of mosquitoes and black flies (When advised to bring a mosquito hat, do take them seriously, even if you can't imagine how you could possibly eat lunch in the field through such a device).
We did a weekly bird count, although relatively few showed up in 2000, a fact that sparked numerous discussions about why. We talked about the impact of ecotourism on the bear population, as well as on the economy of Churchill.
Our team actually saw a bear, fairly up close and personal, on one of our post-dinner drives. We had piled out of the van to check out an Inuit sled and there it was, lazing beside a pond. It was a beauty, and it stood up when it saw us. Peter ordered us back into the van immediately.
Together the five Earthwatch teams in 2000 set up five of the six sites for the Long-term Ecological Research Program study. Peter reported that after only one summer's work, they were half-way through the baseline tasks, a process he had expected to take three years. That was praise indeed for this volunteer hole-digger.
Joanne Edgar is a computer-bound consultant, living in New York City. She is a writer and communication strategist for foundations and nonprofit organizations and has enjoyed numerous Earthwatch expeditions.
Dr. Peter Kershaw is the current Principal Investigator for Climate Change at the Arctic's Edge