Canadian Arctic: Researching climate change

Voluntourism is reaching new heights and making 'citizen scientists' of every day travellers. We sent one of our contributors to Canada's frozen north — famous for its annual influx of polar bears — to research climate change at the Arctic's Edge

By Mark Stratton
Published 27 Feb 2015, 12:10 GMT, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 16:33 BST

The crimson and yellow Manitoban autumn rolled by as genial Bob, a farmer from Ontario, lumbered into the dining-car of our train for some small talk. "Why you folks all heading to Churchill?" he asked.

"For a research project studying climate change," I replied, nodding towards Annie, a fellow Earthwatch eco-voluntourist on the train from Winnipeg to the Canadian Arctic.

Bob just had time to adjust his baseball cap before melting down like a disappearing glacier.

"That's bullshit," he hollered. "I've been farming all my life and it ain't getting any colder or warmer. It goes in cycles."

Climate change is a touchy subject, although Bob was right about cycles. For the last 800,000 years, Earth has lurched between Ice Ages and reheating Interglacials. Yet in recent decades, mounting scientific evidence catalogues a greater rise than ever before of malignant greenhouse gases produced by humans. Global warming, scientists say, will have profound effects on weather and food security, causing the polar ice to melt and sea levels to rise.

Bob won't admit it but we're a generation of carbon-emission criminals. I've got a carbon footprint as large as the soles of the reclining Buddhas of Bangkok. I do my best when I'm back in the UK, using public transport and not eating meat (cows fart huge quantities of lethal methane into our atmosphere), but I wrack up air miles all year round. I often fret about this and wanted to understand more about climate change and, perhaps, in some small way, to make amends. Fortunately, the stellar rise in voluntourism — working holidays for volunteers — afforded me the chance to spend a trip giving something back.

Task in hand

I signed up to become a 'citizen scientist' on an 11-day expedition called Climate Change at the Arctic's Edge in beautiful northern Manitoba. The project is run by Earthwatch,  an international environmental charity founded in 1971. Last year it sent over 5,000 voluntourists to 57 countries to join scientific projects as diverse as shark conservation in Belize to uncovering the Roman Empire around Hadrian's Wall.

My expedition was located on Hudson Bay, near Churchill, in Canada's frozen north — famous for its annual influx of polar bears. The project I joined involved collecting field data to analyse the impact of rising temperatures on vegetation and frozen permafrost soil.

Embracing the eco-friendly zeitgeist, I chose VIA Rail's two-day rail journey north from Winnipeg to Churchill. It's a stunning experience. Throughout 1,000-plus miles, any sense of cabin fever is allayed by Manitoba's sense of infinite space. Wheat prairies give way to autumnal conifer forests then treeless flat tundra. Backwaters, such as Kettle Rapids and Thicket Portage, come and go and we paused for snaking grain trains, hundreds of yards long, to pass.

Expedition volunteers are housed in the Churchill Northern Study Centre, 14 miles outside town near the quartz-bouldered shoreline. This modern research facility has warm four-bed dorms, labs, an excellent refectory, and an observation deck to view the Northern Lights jolting around the sky like plasma blobs in a 1960s lava lamp.

My fellow Earthwatchers proved to be a cast of nations: Quebecois Annie, two Californians, a local Manitoban, two Indian guys working for Shell, and Christy from the Philippines. Eric Butler from San Jose, a veteran of 10
Earthwatch expeditions, summarised the appeal of voluntouring: "I love getting out and doing things on my travels. You have access to otherwise off-limit places and meet lots of interesting people."

Our scientific leaders for the week were the facility's director, Dr LeeAnn Fishback, an environmental geochemist, and Dr Steven Mamet, a biogeographer from the University of Saskatchewan. Our remit was to contribute to long-term baseline data to help evaluate the impact of climate change. Research has shown a mean annual warming of 2C over the past 30 years around Churchill. It's melting permafrost and altering vegetation. Dr Mamet's immediate short-term advice, however, was not to go outside unescorted in case  any "large hairy white things" were lurking around. He carried a shotgun outdoors to frighten bears away if necessary.

The days were long and structured. We breakfasted at 7am to be in the field by 8.30am. We'd return to the field after lunch before late afternoon labwork, dinner, then further labwork or lectures until 9pm.

I loved being in the field. The wind-lashed tundra's magic pervades your soul as sure as it chills your toes. I worked along the tundra's edge of boreal forest amid squidgy bogs and glacial ridges. The flora is a bouncy patchwork explosion of blueberries and crowberries, stunted rhododendrons, spongy mosses and orange starburst lichen. Occasionally, grouse or red squirrels showed themselves while snow geese migrated south overhead in well-drilled V-squadrons.

Our primary task entailed being hunched over 6x3ft quadrats (used for sampling plants) on hands and knees, looking for black and white spruce seedlings sometimes only half-an-inch high. The more seedlings germinating and surviving in the tundra hinted at the treeline's advancement as temperatures rise. We routinely found one pretty golden-yellow newcomer called tamarack larch.

"This wasn't around here in the 1980s yet its abundance now has gone through the roof," said Dr Mamet.

Surely more trees are good though, you might be thinking?

"If tundra is replaced by forest we could see further temperature rises of several degrees," countered Dr Mamet. It's hard getting your mind around things such as positive feedback loops. But as forest encroaches on tundra, it absorbs and retains more heat, which in turn lowers the albedo (reflectiveness) of white snow to bounce back solar radiation. And although trees photosynthesize and take up carbon dioxide, this is outweighed by the increased breakdown of organic material producing still more CO2.

Science aside, it was hugely motivating to know we were contributing to an immense debate. Whenever our sub-team found a precious emerging seedling, it was high-fives all round or whoops of, 'Oh yeah'. Other tasks included assessing the permafrost depth by forcing a metal probe into the peat until it crunched into frozen soil between 1-3 feet below.

I never realised the importance of permafrost. We're told it covers 24% of the Earth's soil (mostly in Russia) across the circumpolar region. "Forty years of records show permafrost is thawing as soil temperatures rise," said Mamet. And with 50% of the world's carbon locked up in permafrost, its melting will decompose and dissipate even greater quantities of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere.

To the future

A first indication that global warming might be detrimental to human health was the rising levels of caffeine and alcohol I needed to get through the labwork. (I knew there was a reason why I flunked sciences.) With eyes nearly popping out of my sockets, one task involved extracting seeds the size of dust specks from cones and counting them. We later planted these seeds in a controlled experiment called G-Tree to assess how environmental factors affect their growth.

The complex mechanics driving climate change also became clearer during evening lectures. We learned how the sun's radiation output alters during Milankovitch cycles — the natural roll and tilt of the Earth's axis that influences solar activity. This was definitely science to wow friends with at dinner parties… if I can remember it. And lamentably, that the latest greenhouse gas-on-the-block is sulphur hexafluoride: apparently emitting away from my computer's resistor and 23,000 times more potent than good old carbon dioxide. Damn it, I'm a sulphur hexafluoride criminal as well.

But hey, it wasn't all science and no play — I had a day off in Churchill, population 800. Cold sleet strafed the Hudson Bay. A stranded 1960s shipwreck, The Ithica, rusts offshore, boxy government-built homes and Wild West-style bars serving delicious Arctic char (local salmon) and elk-burgers lend a frontier town feel. Churchill's majority Inuit population occupied this shoreline long before Europeans arrived in the 17th-century. Husky dogs are chained up around town alongside Ski-Doos waiting for when the Bay freezes over.

There's a fine museum showcasing 'Eskimo' life with intricate Inuit carvings hewed from narwhal tusk and soapstone, alongside stuffed muskox and walrus and an 800lb polar bear specimen. From mid-October to November, Churchill becomes the polar bear migration capital of the world as they depart from their summertime tundra sojourn for the frozen bay to hunt for seals.

One apocalyptic scenario is that all the Arctic ice might disappear through global warming by 2050. This would be a disaster for polar bears, forcing them to forage inland and into further conflict with humans. This already happens in Churchill. At the so-called 'Polar Bear Jail', warden Brett Wolock was locking-up an aircraft-hanger containing air-conditioned cells currently hosting nine furry inmates.

"Biggest one we got inside is 1,118lbs; he's a repeat offender," said Wolock. Bears are trapped, if persistent nuisances, in town and after a spell in the slammer, they're deported 50km away by helicopter. "Trouble is," Wolock said, "some come right back as there's an easy source of food". Garbage, not residents.

Back at base, I completed my fieldwork before final lectures: "If you think a 2C rise doesn't sound like much, imagine how unwell a human body feels with such a temperature rise," said Dr Fishback. "With levels of greenhouses gases rising steeper than at any time in the last 800,000 years, the Earth is in a place it has never been before. Citizen scientists like yourselves are key to understanding what's happening, as our fieldwork is so labour-intensive, we'd struggle to complete it without Earthwatch groups."

I certainly felt I'd been a part of something important, as did my teammates. "It's helped me realise the speed at which atmospheric gases have accumulated," said Annie Pomerleau, a 35-year-old engineer, while 57-year-old Brian Jarnutowski from San Francisco, added: "I feel as if I have the tools now to inform and argue more intelligently."

I took a final drive to Bird Cove, where as always the polar winds bristled. Two white blips stirred on the horizon. I drew closer to find a polar bear and her cub. Pristine-white and healthy, they were waiting for Hudson Bay to ice over. They watched me, totally relaxed, lazing amid the tundra berries. I wondered if they'd noticed life in the Arctic was heating up?


Getting there
There are no direct flights from the UK to Winnipeg. Air Canada flies via Montreal and Toronto from Heathrow, while British Airways flies via Toronto.
Average flight time: 12h.

Fly from Winnipeg to Churchill — the journey takes two hours and is operated by Calm Air and Kivalliq Air. Alternatively, take the train: the Via Rail Canada train departs from Winnipeg for Churchill every Sunday and Tuesday morning at 9am, taking around 48 hours.

When to go
Early summer enjoys flora-rich tundra with temperatures around 25C. Polar bears are best seen on the September and February projects — the latter sees deep snowdrifts.

Where to stay
Fort Garry Hotel (Winnipeg): a classic 1912 railway hotel.

How to do it
Eleven-day Climate at the Arctic's Edge expeditions run all year round, from £2,050 per person, excluding flights. 

Published in the March 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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