The Arctic opened my eyes to the life that it holds. From microscopic plankton to human communities at the edge of the ice, the arctic is biodiverse, but its climate is changing faster than anywhere else on Earth. What will be the affect on all life?
In June, I applied to Schools on Board, which takes Canadian students and teachers to our planet’s far north. Participants join a team of scientists aboard the CCGS Amundsen, where they experience the wonders of science and the Arctic environment itself.
I got my acceptance letter while writing a math test, and my head grew so filled with clips from Planet Earth DVD’s that I failed the test.
Beneath my excitement, I remained unsure. As the end of high school approaches, I feel the pressure to pick a career. I love both the arts and sciences, and their intersections, but by accepting the Schools on Board opportunity, I felt had resigned myself to a scientific life. Visiting the Arctic is a rare opportunity, and making the most of the trip might be a lever into the scientific world.
From the library, I borrowed books filled with pictures of hunters and tundra. The landscapes and faces seemed distant and surreal, as if they existed on another planet. The beauty of the arctic called to me.
Funding the trip proved to be my first hurdle. I decided to launch a crowd funding campaign, rather than find corporate sponsors. With my sketchbook and some pencil crayons, I made a video to pitch the idea. Within weeks, I was halfway to my goal. With every contribution, I became more invested in the trip.
At the end of September, I set off. From my home on Cortes Island on the west coast of B.C., I travelled to Quebec City, where I met up with the rest of the group.
What follows are exerts from my journal.
- Friday, October 2, 2015
In the Arctic, you are at the whim of the Earth. Travel depends on the weather, and the elements here are extreme.
Yesterday, we left Quebec City for the airport at 4 a.m., bleary eyed but excited. Along with a crew of about 80 researchers, Coast Guards, and students, we boarded our flight. When we touched down for fuel in Iqaluit, an announcement over the intercom asked us to disembark. A storm was rising in Resolute Bay, where the ship was moored. We would have to wait it out in Iqaluit.
We were shuttled into the town where we checked into a hotel, then went out to explore. The town was a juxtaposition of bright and rough: two children’s bikes, left to rust in a garbage-filled creek; the harsh landscape, and the smiles of kids rushing out of school; the calloused hands of crafters offering us their creations, and the beads, the fur, the stone.
The next day, the weather cooperated, and we made it onto the ship. We began to travel to sampling stations in Lancaster Sound.
- Sunday, October 4, 2015
CCGS Amundsen, Lancaster Sound
Lancaster Sound is the “Serengeti of the Arctic,” according to Philippe Archambault, the Chief Scientist onboard, and a professor of Benthic Ecology.
Last night, we all went up to the Bridge. Little yellow helmets dotted the foredeck below, crowded around the sampling equipment. We watched from above as they deployed the Rosette, the Box Corer and the Tucker Net to bring up different samples; each piece collects different aspects of the ecosystem.
Philippe was also in the Bridge. We began to ask him questions, and, once we started, our desire to understand gained momentum until there was no lapse in conversation.
He told us that the organisms at the bottom of the ocean aren’t getting the same nutrients that they have in the past. Traditional organisms aren’t getting all they need, and invasive species are thriving.
- October 5, 2015
Somewhere between Greenland and Ellesmere Island.
Icebergs are like nothing else on Earth. The first one I saw was a tiny, blue triangle, glowing on the horizon. As we travel further north, they become more and more frequent. Each one is different and in their shapes and their composition, they hold their own history.
I spent the morning in the bridge, painting icebergs on postcards. They are painted in my mind too; the exact colour of sunlight on a ridge of ice, mixed in my watercolour tin, is not something I’ll ever forget.
- October 7, 2015
The days have begun to slide together. I am settling into a routine of sampling, lectures, meals and sleep, as well as long periods of transit time, where activity on the ship slows. Once we reach a sampling station, however, everyone whirs into action. Sleep is abandoned, and then snatched up again in periods of a few hours.
The other night, at 11 p.m., pajama-clad and sleepy eyed, I went to get a glass of water. On my way through the halls, I bumped into some scientists carrying coolers of samples. Inside, small, silvery fish glowed.
The next morning, Thibaud, a graduate student working on zooplankton, gave us a lecture. Zooplankton are animals that drift, rather than swim in the ocean. Despite their size, they play two important roles in the ecosystem. Zooplankton acts as a biological pump, bringing CO2 to the bottom. They also convert the sugars stored in phytoplankton, the plants of the sea, to fats, which are essential to the survival of larger animals. (Have you ever wondered how whales can survive on krill?)
Thibaud collects samples using sediment traps stationed for a year, with different bottles open at different times. The traps are like a time machine, preserving the plankton (using formaldehyde) as well as recording the physical conditions in which they were collected: sea ice concentration, water temperature, and salinity. These traps allow Thibaud to see the relationship between environment and life. He doesn’t know yet what the results of a changing climate will be – he is still collecting data, and he needs many years of research in order to see trends.
In a few minutes, Gabriel (student – Quebec City) and I will join Thibaud in his lab to process the zooplankton samples.
I love that a few hours after listening to a lecture from a passionate scientist we are able to see the data itself. Even counting and sorting the tinniest organisms is showing me a larger picture of science.
- October 10, 2015
Our time onboard the Amundsen is coming to a close.
I have learnt so much in the past few weeks. Lectures, fieldwork, and discussions have brought science to life. I feel so lucky to be able to approach a researcher at the source of information, and ask questions the moment they arise. Being involved in real research has given us a sense of responsibility. If we miscount zooplankton species, it will affect a data set that will be built on for years. Through Schools on Board, both my confidence and my passion for science has grown.
- October 11, 2015
Pond Inlet, Nunavut
Pond Inlet sits among tall, jagged mountains, at the place where the land softens to meet the sea.
We were shuttled, via helicopter, from the ship to the land. We arrived with an hour of sun left, so we explored the town and the museum. A group of Inuk met us at the high school, where we shared a meal while they told us stories.
One man travelled without the sun, GPS, or maps. Each year, he navigated across the tundra by stars.
“When I was sixteen,” a young man said, “my family was homeless. We had run out of food and oil, and it was the middle of the winter. We were very cold. One day, my father and I went hunting. We found a seal, and my father shot, and missed. I watched from his mistakes, and took the gun, and aimed. That night we had food, and heat. I skipped school the next day just because those basic needs were filled.”
“My father and his family before him,” said Cara, a Schools on Board participant, “have hunted in the same place every spring. This year, they couldn’t go to that spot because the ice wasn’t thick enough.”
These three stories show the relationship the Inuit people have to their environment. They are in tune with the natural world, and they know how to survive in what many of us would consider the most hostile environment on Earth. Traditions, such as seal hunting, are essential for survival. As the climate changes, the poles heat faster than anywhere else on Earth, so the people of the north are the first to notice. The Inuit are canaries in a coalmine.
The consequences of change in the arctic will spread. Melting ice affects the temperature and salinity of the world’s oceans, which will affect all marine life. All water on our planet is connected. Our actions impact the arctic, and wherever we live, we will see consequences.
My time in the Arctic has given me a better understanding of how Earth’s ecosystems function, and how, in the face of change, it is important to look at all the pieces of a system. However, the most important thing that I have brought home is a love of the Arctic. I hope that, by sharing my experience, I will encourage you to think about how you are connected to the North.
As part of the Schools on Board program offered through ArcticNet – a federally-funded arctic research program – Carihi student Tara Warkentin and nine other high school students from across the country joined the crew of the CCGS Amundsen for two weeks to explore the effects of global warming on the Arctic. The Amundsen is one of Canada’s largest Coast Guard icebreakers and has been outfitted as an arctic science research vessel. It houses 65 scientific systems, 22 shipboard laboratories and an army of scientists and crew. Warkentin recently returned from her adventure and prepared this report.