A semester of Arctic exploration

by Patrick McDonagh

“More people climb Everest each year than visit 80° north,” says Hans Larsson, McGill’s Canada Research Chair in Vertebrate Palaeontology. But this past summer, Larsson, BSc’94, and geography professor Wayne Pollard, a veteran of nearly 30 years of arctic research, launched the McGill Arctic Field Studies (MAFS) program that saw six undergraduate students carry out independent research projects while based at the McGill Arctic Research Station (MARS) on Axel Heiberg Island, 80° north in Canada’s High Arctic.

MAFS joins McGill’s roster of out-of-the-ordinary field semesters – which also include East Africa, Panama, and the Caribbean. MAFS students prepared for their arctic adventure by taking spring term courses in Arctic climate, geomorphology, and geology, as well as first aid (future versions may also include courses in ecology, biodiversity, and arctic cultures). Then, at the end of July, they flew to Iqaluit, capital of Nunavut, where for several days they met researchers with government agencies and visited Arctic College, Canada’s most northerly educational institute.

Arctic fox kits (Photo: Anthony Zerafa)

Next on the agenda: Resolute Bay, on Cornwallis Island, where they visited the Polar Continental Shelf Project, the logistics HQ for much of the research being performed in the Canadian Arctic. And from there they flew by Twin Otter to the ultimate destination, Axel Heiberg Island, where they launched into data collection for the independent projects they had designed with the professors. The students analyzed their data and wrote final reports based on their findings in a second independent studies course at McGill during the fall term.

“It was an invaluable experience,” says McGill School of Environment student Eva Yifan Wu, who explored plant biodiversity, collecting samples and carrying out a phylogenetic analysis of them once back at McGill, sequencing their DNA and registering her findings with the International Barcode of Life program, based at the University of Guelph. “It’s so different from learning from lecture slides!”

Meanwhile, geography student Hana Moidu focused on hydrology, taking core samples of the sediment of a lake next to MARS to perform an environmental reconstruction, tracking changes in the lake’s acidity due to glacier runoff over time. “I’m interested in changing landscapes, and this was a chance to apply my knowledge in the field,” she says.

Anthropology student Anthony Zerafa, president of the student-run Redpath Museum Society, launched a comparative study of insect diversity between various island microhabitats. “There’s so little information on insects and arthropods in the high Arctic,” he says. “It’s a frontier, reminiscent of 19th century natural history.”

The field work ended suddenly, but more or less on schedule, when winter arrived with a vengeance at 2 am on August 18. After the blizzard calmed, Larsson plowed a runway and radioed for a plane, which took them home. “One of our goals was for students to really learn the logistics of Arctic science. Sometimes much of the day is spent just staying alive, and other days we might get 18 hours for teaching or research,” says Larsson. “We wanted to immerse students in that Arctic rhythm, where weather dictates everything.”

Arctic cottongrass (Photo: Anthony Zerafa)

The effort seems successful, as several students – including Wu and Zerafa – plan to pursue their graduate studies in Arctic research, an area that has experienced a downturn in field scientists in recent years, largely due to funding cuts. But with global warming and its associated environmental changes, as well as increases in economic activities such as mining in the far north, Arctic science – and the fresh young minds needed to carry it out – is becoming increasingly important.

“This is the first time McGill undergrads have traveled to the Arctic for research, and is probably a first in Canada. It’s been an amazing experience,” says Larsson. While the program was capped at six students this year – because that’s how many, plus professors and gear, could fit in the airplane that carried them to their destinations – Larsson thinks enrolment could easily be doubled eventually, perhaps even opening program spaces to northern residents.

published in December, 2016

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