Update from the Arctic

Getting a Read on Changing Conditions

In October I traveled to Climate Change at the Arctic’s Edge, an Earthwatch Institute Expedition in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. I worked under the University of Alberta’s Peter Kershaw, Ph.D., to collect benchmark data on current environmental conditions there to enable comparisons to future data. Volunteers from all over the world joined me in this effort.

The Churchill area sits on a unique landscape of underlying permafrost, which was the main focus of our study. We visited numerous sites throughout the Hudson Bay region of Churchill to collect data. On a typical day on the tundra we would dig a hole until we hit the permafrost.

We would then measure how deep the hole was and collect soil samples in 10-centimeter increments. The samples would be taken back to the lab for weighing, drying, burning of organics and pH and conductivity testing.This data will then be compared to future samples to determine the change in the environment.

Why were we studying these sites? As the area warms, the organic material in the soil decomposes and releases carbon dioxide and methane—two important greenhouse gasses. We were collecting organic matter that contained kelp that had been frozen since the ocean receded thousands of years ago during deglaciation. Because of warming, this kelp was now starting to thaw.

This research could be very important to the animals that live in this area. Churchill is known as the beluga and polar bear capital of the world and is also regarded as a top-10 place to bird-watch. While in the tundra I was able to see Arctic fox and hare, caribou, eagles, grouse, tundra swans, short-eared owl and, of course, polar bears.

As I was up there, fall was just coming to an end, and polar bears were migrating in to wait for ice to freeze on Hudson Bay so they could start hunting seals to fatten up for the winter. Locals told me that it is usually colder there then during the time I visited. One day it was actually colder in Chicago then in the Arctic!

As of a few weeks ago the wind and snow was finally blowing and falling, and the bay was beginning to freeze. This is a good sign as the next group of Earthwatch volunteers will be there in February to continue the work.  

Anthony Nielsen

Anthony Nielsen is lead keeper of the Kovler Lion House and Kovler Sea Lion Pool. His trip was made possible by the generosity of zoo donors Mary and Bruce Feay, who established the Feay Earthwatch Grant to enable one staff member annually to attend an Earthwatch Institute expedition. The Earthwatch Institute is a non-profit organization dedicated to offering environmental volunteering opportunities.