Climate Change at the Arctic's Edge
The town of Churchill, Manitoba, is one of the locations of the Earthwatch project Climate Change at the Arctic's Edge.
Churchill began as a trading post for the Hudson's Bay Company, and was named after one of its governors, John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough and an ancestor of Winston Churchill. It is a small town located on the sea coast and within the Hudson Bay lowlands, the largest peatlands in North America. The town is situated at the mouth of the Churchill River, a large north-flowing waterway, and at the northern edge of the forest-tundra near the geographical centre of the North American continent.
The trip to Churchill is not overly difficult, but as no roads lead to it, the only practical way to get there is by air or rail (36-40 hour journey), departing from Winnipeg. The journey takes you through the unusual yet beautiful scenery of the arctic tundra with its many lakes.
Plant diversity is high for this latitude because it is a meeting of arctic, sub-arctic and boreal species. There is also a complex mix of western, eastern, northern and southern fauna, making the region a biodiversity hotspot. With around 57,000 beluga whales and 1,200 polar bears, the town advertises itself as both the beluga whale and polar bear capital of the world. In addition to polar bears, there are also grizzly and black bears. Woodland caribou, barren ground caribou and moose abound. No fewer than four species of grouse inhabit the region. Churchill has also been ranked one of the top 10 bird-watching spots in the world; this diversity is partly supported by the high populations of mosquitoes and black flies that are prey for these birds.
Churchill contains a mix of people from three great aboriginal nations: the Inuit from the north, the Dené from the west, and the Cree from the south and east. This diversity encouraged a relatively early introduction of Europeans into the area. There is a long history of trade and scientific research stretching back almost 300 years. Today a number of archaeological and historic sites and forts can be seen in the area. One of the world's largest collections of Inuit artefacts and carvings is found at the Eskimo Museum.
Some of the earliest biological research conducted in North America stemmed from Fort Prince of Wales at the mouth of the Churchill River. Churchill was also the location of some of the earliest modern-day astronomical observations and it is one of the best sites in the world for viewing the northern lights.
The Churchill study area straddles the continental tree line where permafrost underlies the landscape, producing unique land forms. Climate change is affecting this area, but without detailed information about current environmental conditions it is impossible to accurately evaluate future changes. Climate change models predict significant temperature rises for the Hudson Bay region. If these changes come to pass there will be dramatic geomorphological and ecological responses, and a potentially significant change could be the degradation of permafrost.
At present the ground is frozen year-round within as little as a few decimetres of the surface. This has locked in organic matter accumulated since the land emerged from the ocean after deglaciation. Should these organic deposits thaw, decomposition would release the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane.
Dr. Peter Kershaw's research is designed to quantify the current state of the dominant ecosystems in the region. Once this has been accomplished then future changes can be evaluated against these benchmark data. The studies are labour-intensive and Earthwatch teams provide the people-power that makes it possible to collect high amounts of data in relatively small windows of time.
"Due to global warming, permafrost in the Arctic is rapidly receding and could disappear in decades."
Dr. Peter Kershaw, lead scientist, Climate Change at the Arctic's Edge
In this inimitable arctic landscape, volunteers take measurements at study plots extending from the tundra into the forest to monitor changes affecting the carbon stores in these peat-rich ecosystems. Summer and autumn teams use ground-penetrating radar, microclimate data-loggers, and soil coring to measure the permafrost and organic carbon stores. They also live-trap small mammals, sample trees and shrubs to evaluate their growth rings, and monitor plant development. February teams have a unique opportunity to experience the edge of the Arctic in its most dramatic season - winter. Travelling by kamatik towed by snowmobiles, volunteers classify ice crystals, measure snow pack thickness, density, hardness, and temperature. They can also build an igloo and sleep in it comfortably, even when the temperature outside plummets to -30 or -40 degrees Celsius.
Volunteers are based at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, with dramatic scenery and a dome for watching the arctic sky - and possibly the northern lights.
Canada Fact File
Language: English and French. The province of New Brunswick is the only officially bilingual area of the country. Within the province of Québec, French is legally the only official language and English is not widely spoken outside of tourist areas.
Area: 9,976,000 sq km (3,851,734 sq miles)
Currency: Canadian Dollar (C$)