The Beauty of Nature

That stupid classical music woke us up again; I really need to talk to max about his selection of music, but that’s another story. Regardless, after the obligatory yawns and extra 10 minutes in bed, we all begrudgingly rolled out of our warm covers ready to start the day. The days of showing up to breakfast right at 7 a.m. are long gone; a prompt 7:40 arrival has become the norm. The pancakes, yogurt and eggs tasted delicious none the less.

After a quick change into some clothes that were more or less clean (honestly, we cannot tell at this point, our room looks like a tornado hit it), we met downstairs ready to enter the belly of the beast (and by beast, I mean a tundra buggy). I use the word beast because these things are gargantuan: each tire is at least 2 feet wide, the lower chassis was taken from a firetruck, and then they basically took a double-wide school bus and threw it on top.

It struck me as ironic that we were studying climate change in a vehicle that probably struggled to get a quarter mile to the gallon, but we were allured by the sweet sound of polar bears so our moral dilemma had to wait. The one thing I know for certain, all that weight makes this thing slow: top speed of 20 mph on ideal road surfaces, and we were far from ideal.

We trudged along at a nice 5 mph into the frozen tundra. What it lacked it speed, it made up for in off-roading ability. Remember those ephemeral wetlands we collected stickleback in earlier? Well those are now covered in a nice layer of ice. Yet the great white beast we were riding did not care; we rolled through water, dirt, rocks and just about anything else the tundra could throw our way. The time finally came though; the elusive polar bear was spotted. We crept up about as silently as one can in a 20,000-pound behemoth (which, if you’re wondering, is not that silent). Somehow,  “big blue” the polar bear did not move.

We positioned ourselves about 50 feet away from him, hoping he would get curious and approach. I will save you the anticipation; he did not. After marveling at the majestic beast and taking plenty of pictures that you will no doubt see, we decided to move on. Inebriated with happiness over this sighting, the arctic monster truck and her inhabitants trudged forward, optimistic we were moving onto bigger and better things. We were right.

img_1499As lunch time drew near, we were all getting hungry, but this hunger could not be satisfied by mere food. We were hungry for an up-close and personal polar bear sighting; the type you see in brochures and travel magazines. You may think this was a naive fantasy that could not possibly occur, well to those who say that, I will have you know it did happen. Joke’s on you. The arctic beast emerged as we rounded the corner at the tip of the cape. The sun was shimmering off its white fur as it inched closer to our vehicle.

Closer and closer it came: 100 feet, 75, 50, 30, 20, 10. It was getting nearer and nearer as we all stuck our heads out the windows, desperate for a picture (or a selfie in Melanie’s case). Before we knew it, the polar bear was almost directly under our outreached heads. Looking back, that’s kind of a terrifying thought, but don’t worry, parents, our safety was never in danger. Words cannot quite describe how amazing it was to see such a voracious beast so close.

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We could see its long, sharp teeth as it attempted to bite our massive tires. We could see the blacks of its eyes as it peered curiously at all the small mammal bipeds capturing photo after photo. At one point, it even jumped up and put it paws on the tundra buggy, right next to Ms. Morris, who was luckily taking a video at the time. After a while, the bear moved on to one of the other buggies that had shown up, and we reluctantly moved on from our furry friend.

img_1503We then had a quick lunch (all that polar bear watching really works up an appetite). The rest of the day was filled with ptarmigan, short tailed weasel, silver fox and other assorted arctic wildlife sightings, along with a return visit to our boy “big blue.” As we left the tundra buggy, one could not overstate the beauty of the nature we had witnessed, but one could also question the ethics of disturbing this nature for the sake of our own viewing pleasure. These are questions to be pondered later, though, as dinner time was fast approaching. The long promised Thanksgiving dinner of turkey and mashed potatoes was even better than all our other meals (no small feat).

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We then found ourselves watching the documentary Chasing Ice as a replacement for our evening lecture. The documentary followed the journey of James Balong and his team at Extreme Ice Survey as they attempt to show climate change in a way we can all understand: pictures. He believes that people will only understand the rapid and immediate effects of climate change if they can see these effects first hand. His mission was to photograph ice, specifically glaciers, as they recede and calve at record rates. We all left the room stunned at the sheer magnitude of the events depicted in the movie: glaciers are receding at hundreds of feet per year, ice chunks the size of lower Manhattan and about 2-3 times as tall as the Empire State Building are breaking off into the ocean, and the Greenland ice sheet is melting at an alarming rate. I will not go into the long-term effects that this can have on the climate and ocean levels, but needless to say, the consequences will not be good if we continue at this rate.

We are all now eagerly anticipating Dr. Fishback’s talk tomorrow morning on what we can do to help. We are playing Rummy Cube now, honestly a pretty fun game, but I guess that’s slightly irrelevant so I will end this update here. The journey home begins tomorrow.

– Ross

The Tree Line, Plant Ecology & S’mores

img_1481We awoke to the smell of fresh vegetarian quiches along with yogurt and sausage links. We had a late start to the day with our first lecture at 9 a.m., but still, a long day was ahead of us. We left for our tree-line and plant-ecology studies at around 10 a.m. and drove 30 minutes out to a very vegetated and large forest.

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We  walked through on a small path to find the special trees that had censors on them measuring their growth, among other things. We learned out to extract a core sample using a small metal tool and a hammer. Each of us four students took a turn at extracting a core sample while Dr. Fishback changed out a logger in one of the electronics ports. The loggers take data every 30 minutes and can last for 20 years under the right conditions. We looked at the metal cages protecting certain areas of vegetation for study.

Then we drove into a dip in the land to stay out of the wind and build our campfire. We took out our bagged lunches, sat down and had some hot cocoa and s’mores! We relaxed there as we all re-energized, and then we cleaned up and headed back out.

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After, we drove to a weather sensor and connected a computer to it to download a year’s worth of data, but it only took around 30 seconds. Then Dr. Fishback explained that the sensor recorded the temperature and the conditions of the permafrost below. After a very cold and windy couple of hours, we all headed back to the center wanting showers and the ability to feel our toes again. Soon, the smell of fresh ribs wafted around, and we headed down for dinner. We gathered around the table and had some great banter about differences of opinions between the people of Churchill and the researchers.

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We soon were headed to the seminar room for a lecture on climate change in the cryosphere. The main point of the lecture is that there is unprecedented, rapid change in the arctic. Specifically in the snow extent, glaciers and sea ice… among other things. It was a fantastic and informational lecture that really gave us the knowledge to have a clearer understanding of this topic, one that we can present to our peers when we return!

– Jenny

A Nature Tour

img_1462It’s not every day you get into a school bus with a massive rifle hanging up front. Nevertheless, at 9 a.m. this morning, the eight of us climbed into a tattered old school bus capable of holding 40 people. The man sitting in the driver seat claimed that they “use the rifle for the rowdy kids.” He came across as rustic and wise, and that he was. He spilled facts that boggled the mind, such as, “Did you know isostatic rebound is causing Manitoba to grow?” These detailed facts were a theme throughout the day. It seemed like his knowledge was endless. Thus, the various locations we visited on our nature tour were very interesting.

Our first stop was at the coast. We learned about various tundra plants and spotted a female polar bear. After our visit to the coast, we made a quick stop at our driver’s house to inspect his fossil collection. It was vast and comprised of a few fossils that dated back millions of years. All the hiking and exposure to fossils wore us out. So, our next stop was lunch at Cape Mary, the peninsula adjacent to the town. While we ate lunch, we talked about local business, polar bear attack stories and more.

img_1458Once we were rejuvenated, we rolled out and headed inland towards Churchill’s major river. When we arrived, our driver told stories about Manitoba Hydro, the state-run company that provides all power to the area. These stories ranged from how Manitoba Hydro produces power to various arguments the town of Churchill has had with the company.

We finished out our nature tour on a somber note. We visited a memorial for the local Dene tribe. In the mid 20th century, the Canadian government relocated the Dene people because of dwindling caribou populations. This ultimately led to the demimg_1463ise of the Dene people, who fought starvation, alcoholism and more because of their relocation. Hearing the stories of the Dene was quite horrific; nevertheless, it was an interesting piece of Canadian history. I’d better mention that on our way back to the research center, our guide taught us to shoot a rifle. He took us out in front of the bus and let us pop off a few rounds into a wooden barricade.

Our day was caped off by a climate presentation given by Dr. Fishback, a scientist at the research center. We were all tired entering the presentation, regardless, I think just about everyone was shocked by the information we learned. We truly got down into some of the “science-y” aspects of why the climate is changing.

– Max

Exploring Churchill

We woke up to French toast then met in the classroom to review the plans for the day. We then quickly layered up and piled into the van to find sea life along the coast of the Hudson Bay. We saw a polar on the way there and stopped to take pictures.

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Finally we made it to the coast and collected clams for the fish along with snails, worms and other sea life to look at under the microscope. On our way back to the bus, we had a big snowball fight with the scarce patches of snow on the ground.

We searched for polar bears a little more before heading back to the research center. When we got back, we delayered and met in the science lab to look at the organisms we caught under the microscope.

By lunch, 66 other people had arrived at the research center making the lunch line a lot longer than it had been. After lunch, the eight of us piled in the van without a guide to go dog sledding. We met about thirty five huskies and some pups. The head dog sledder told us about dog sledding and his story. Then we got to experience it in groups of two for a little over a mile.

img_1455We also got to feed the birds and drink hot chocolate before being awarded our certificates for finishing the course. Then we went through town to see the Churchill Battery, and across the Churchill River was the Prince of Wales Fort. Then we had some time in town to look around in the shops and get some food at the local grocery store. We ate dinner in town at the Tundra Inn Restaurant, which was delicious.

Then we went to the community center, which had everything from the hospital to the school. We went bowling, and this was not like bowling in the U.S. It was five-pin bowling with a small ball. Max and Ross had a very competitive game, and we all bowled until we were exhausted. We returned back to the research center and along the way met a fox. We got back to the center tired from our fun and busy day.

– Melanie

Polar Bear Sighting

This morning we were awoken by the smooth sound of classical music filling the room, a far cry from the yelling of Mr. Ballard that had jarred us awake the previous night in order to see the Northern Lights. Yet, as Max reached to turn off his alarm, we all made a collective sigh, desperately hoping for a few more minutes of sleep before our jam-packed day began.

dsc_0197Breakfast was like all meals we have had thus far: delicious. Pancakes, eggs, yogurt and hot tea all provided us with the fuel we were going to need. We met Dr. Fishback for our morning briefing, where she informed us we would all be wearing our matching neoprene jumpsuits again in order to venture back out into the icy water. The excitement in the room could hardly be contained at the notion. About 30 minutes later and about three layers heavier, we all reconvened in the wet room. With our uniforms on, we set out into the cold, bitterly windy environment.

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Our mission was to collect Brook and Nine Spine Stickleback from the ephemeral wetlands that surrounded the center (interestingly enough, this is actually one of the largest ephemeral wetlands in the world). Dr. Fishback had speculated that our fish count would be in the hundreds the previous day, but as you know, we managed only one. Naturally, this had tempered our expectations, but we all hoped a change in location would bring us more luck. After setting the traps, we walked around the tundra environment.

Dr. Fishback gave us great insight into how trees and other shrubbery can survive in such brutal conditions. With temperatures ranging from -40 to 30 degrees Celsius and winds constantly howling, the trees have very short growing periods and are often deformed by these environmental conditions. With our toes starting to feel numb, we decided to head back to the center for some food and relaxation.

After some down time spent reading and eating another great meal, we all reluctantly layered back up to go check the traps. We managed to catch a whopping one fish (credit goes to Melanie).

As we headedsc_0516editd back, the disappointed silence of the car was broken when an observant Mr. Ballard said, “Is that one in the middle of the road?” We all quickly looked at the road to see a hulking white figure moving away from us about 100 yards out. It was the elusive polar bear we had been searching for. After posing for a plethora of pictures, the polar bear decided to part ways with the road and eventually vanished from sight.

It seemed only fitting that once we made it back to the center Dr. Fishback gave a lecture on these arctic bears. It was filled with some great facts and even better insight into how less sea ice is lowering the likelihood of cubs making it into adulthood (a sad consequence of climate change).

After a long, eventful dadsc_0365y, we were greeted with a special dinner to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving (Columbus Day in the U.S.). This was coupled with a visit from a town elder from the Dene. She spoke of how she was taken from her family when she was only five years old in order to inculcate her into Canadian society, thus stripping her of her culture and heritage.

It was amazing to see how she had overcome this and really embraced the culture and practices that were forced out of her as child. Another early morning awaits us tomorrow though, so we are all off to bed.

– Ross