Ralph Bathelt's Diary
|Friday, September 22, 2006
||Wednesday, September 27, 2006|
|Sunday, October 1, 2006
||Monday, October 2, 2006|
|Tuesday, October 3, 2006
||Wednesday, October 4, 2006|
|Thursday, October 5, 2006
||Friday, October 6, 2006|
|Saturday, October 7, 2006
||Sunday, October 8, 2006|
|Monday, October 9, 2006
||Tuesday, October 10, 2006|
|Wednesday, October 11, 2006
||Thursday, October 12, 2006|
|Friday, October 13, 2006
||Saturday, October 14, 2006|
Friday, September 22, 2006
It’s 3:10 on a Friday afternoon, getting close to quitting time, and the last thing on my mind are the Earthwatch expeditions. Yet there it was, a phone call from Shamsa, telling me that one of my fellow Alcoans was no longer able to participate in the Earthwatch expedition entitled “Climate Change at the Arctic’s Edge” and asking me if I was available to take his place.
To say that I was stunned would be the understatement of the year. I was thrilled at the opportunity to participate in an Earthwatch expedition, particularly one in the Arctic. At the same time, though, I was a bit nervous about meeting the challenge of clearing my calendar, completing essentially three weeks worth of projects, and making the travel arrangements to get to a very remote location—all in 10 days. But this was an opportunity of a lifetime. As I always tell everyone, I like a challenge. So, I guess I will take the advice of my boss and my friends and go for it.
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
It’s been a very busy five days since I received the phone call asking if I was available to go to the Arctic on an Earthwatch expedition. I’ve managed to clear my calendar and get my family’s and my boss’ blessing to disappear for two weeks (with the stipulation, of course, that I bring back lots of pictures and some souvenirs).
This morning, I received my complete travel itinerary for the trip. Finally, it feels like I am really going on the expedition, and in four days no less. Still lots to do before I can drive to Ottawa and get on that first plane.
Sunday, October 1, 2006
My first day of travel is finally here, and it definitely has its ups and downs. Although the trip to Ottawa goes smoothly, things are a bit interesting in getting to my plane, as they posted the wrong gate number on my ticket. Fortunately, I catch the error before it is too late.
The flight from Ottawa to Winnipeg is very relaxing, although it left 35 minutes late. The trip gets a bit more exciting in Winnipeg. I go directly from the gate I came in at to the gate for my next flight, only to be told that my luggage, which was to be checked through to my final destination for the day (Thompson), did, in fact, need to be picked up at baggage claim. I would have to check in at the ticket counter and go through security again, in 15 minutes time. Fortunately, I would have made O.J. Simpson (a former American football player who made a mad dash through an airport for a commercial) proud, and I manage to complete the entire circuit in the required 15 minutes.
Monday, October 2, 2006
After a good night’s rest, it is time to continue the journey and complete the relatively short trip from Thompson to Churchill, Manitoba. I arrive at the airport with lots of time to spare, check in my bag, and then find out that the flight might be canceled due to bad weather in Churchill. Fortunately, my luck holds out, and my flight runs as scheduled.
Finally, I am in Churchill with my entire luggage, too. A quick phone call, and a taxi is on its way to pick me up. The drive from the airport into town only takes about 15 minutes. I am fortunate to get a driver who is willing to act as a tour guide as well. He explains that Churchill, in addition to being the polar bear and beluga whale capital of the world, is also a seaport. In fact, a freighter is now in port picking up a load of grain.
Before I know it, I’m standing in front of one of the most modern hotels in Churchill (it boasts of having high-speed internet and cable television). While not the most luxurious of accommodations I’ve ever stayed in, it is very comfortable. After all, I’ll only be staying one night.
There’s plenty of time to unpack later, so instead, I decide to get out and explore Churchill. Churchill is a very small community with a main street that can be walked in about 25 minutes. The town has a single, large grocery store, which carries everything from fresh vegetables to winter clothing and even a laptop computer. Across the street at a diagonal is a good-sized hardware store. The rest of the main street is basically taken up by a couple of souvenir shops, several restaurants, and a couple hotels. Within five minutes walking distance from the heart of downtown is a train station. If you head in the opposite direction, in about 10 minutes you can walk to the post office and a small museum.
Tuesday, October 3, 2006
After a good night’s sleep, I find myself anxiously waiting for my 10 a.m. ride to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. Promptly at 10, Leeann arrives in one of the study center’s vans, having already picked up another member of our expedition. We then drive to the airport, where we will pick up another six members of our group.
On the way from the airport to the study center, Leeann gives us some information on Churchill and on the study center itself. On the way, we pass by the “Polar Bear Jail,” which appears to be an old aircraft hanger that was remodeled with large cages inside to hold troublesome polar bears rather than shoot them. The bears are kept in jail, only being given water or snow until Hudson Bay freezes and they can be released to head out onto the ice to hunt for seals. The bears aren’t fed in captivity to ensure they don’t come to like the accommodations and want to return every time they are hungry.
Along the way to the center, we pass by several search-and-recovery beacon installations and the rusted remains of a ship that ran aground in the bay. We also pass by a small housing area with a couple permanent homes and several camping facilities.
Once at the study center, we get a quick orientation to the layout of the center and receive our room assignments. Along the way to our rooms, we stop in one of the two lounges where we receive what will be the first of many polar bear safety talks. We are told that we are not allowed to be alone outside the study center. When exiting the building, we need to look out the windows first to make sure there are no bears in the immediate vicinity (including on the roof). When out in the field, we need to frequently look around for bears while performing our tasks. And while out in the field, we need to stay near the study center staff member who has the shotgun. When a bear is seen, the staff member will attempt to scare it off by firing “cracker shells,” which we are told are much like fire crackers. The cracker shells are fired toward the bear. If all goes well, they explode near the bear, driving it off. If after several tries the bear still continues to advance or charges toward the group, the staff member will switch to firing slugs into the bear, killing it if necessary.
After unpacking and having lunch, we meet another three members of our team who have arrived, and we go outdoors for a walking tour of the area. The Northern Studies Centre was created on an old abandoned military missile testing facility originally built to study the atmosphere (northern lights) in the arctic environment. Many of the rocket launchers and assembly buildings are still standing, but several have collapsed due to a lack of use and/or maintenance.
That evening at dinner, we get to finally meet our principal investigator, Dr. Peter (Pete) Kershaw. Later that evening, Pete provides the first of a series of evening lectures. This lecture focuses on what we will be doing over the course of the next 10 days and provides information on the sites we will be working on. We also find out about some of the tasks we will actually be performing in the field.
Wednesday, October 4, 2006
After an excellent breakfast, we head off to our classroom, where Pete will instruct us in the use of some of the equipment. We are first taught how to assemble the ground-penetrating radar (GPR) apparatus and then how to use a transect. We will use the GPR to perform surveys in the field to determine to what depth the ground has thawed during the summer. Although fairly robust, the GPR has several weak links, which include a wide assortment of batteries prone to failure in the cold and a fiber optic cable that could easily be broken by rough handling in the field.
The GPR has three major components. There is a transmitter to send a signal into the ground, a receiver to pick up the signal after it bounces off the permafrost (permafrost is anything that remains frozen—organic or inorganic), and “the brain,” which acquires the signal from the receiver and relays it to a palm computer. The transmitter and receiver are referred to as antennas. The antennas are connected to the brain via a fiber optic cable. The antennas are each powered by a pair of six-volt batteries, while the brain is powered by a single 12-volt battery.
Transects with the GPR are normally either 50 or 75 meters (164 or 246 feet) long, and a reading is taken every 25 centimeters (9.8 inches). All of the information gathered in the field is downloaded back in the lab and merged with topographical data to generate the graphs showing the depth of the thawed ground.
To obtain the topographical information, we use a transect, which is a bit like a telescope. This procedure requires three people—one to hold the rod (giant ruler), one to read the height via the transect, and one to record the data. The most difficult part of this procedure is selecting a good location to set up the transect and then leveling it. Once you get used to the scale on the rod, taking the actual height readings is fairly easy.
After lunch, it’s time to load up the van with all the equipment and actually head out to our first field site, an abandoned gravel borrow pit about 10 minutes from the study center. This is a great location for us to cut our teeth (learn) on. It’s fairly level and has a firm substrate to walk on.
My first task is to be part of the three-person crew performing the GPR survey. All goes well on our first attempt. After 25 meters (82 feet), which is 100 readings, we trade off to allow others the chance to get some hands-on training. My second task is to help the transect crew complete the topographic survey. It took about 3.5 hours to complete all of our tasks at the borrow pit. Our day has ended successfully, and as a reward, we are blessed with the company, albeit brief, of a golden eagle.
After dinner, we get together for another evening lecture. The topic is climate change in the Arctic. Pete provides a very sobering and convincing talk on how the climate in the Arctic has changed (warmed) dramatically over the past five years. The data he presents appear to prove that the climate change is linked to the increase in greenhouse gases (primarily carbon dioxide and methane) caused in recent years by the burning of vast quantities of fossil fuels. While the warming due to the increase in greenhouse gasses is global in nature, it appears that the Arctic will be the area impacted the most due to the massive amount of land within its boundaries.
Most distressing of all is the suggestion that if global warming isn’t slowed or checked, then within another 25 to 30 years, much of the peat stored as part of the permafrost layer will begin to thaw and decay, releasing large volumes of the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide. The release of these gases from the decaying peat will, in turn, magnify the global warming problem.
Thursday, October 5, 2006
After yet another great breakfast, it’s time to load up the van with all the gear and head off to our next study site, referred to simply as the tundra. This is another great site for beginners, as it is fairly level and provides a firm substrate on which to work.
At this site, we need to complete a 75-meter (246-foot) and a 50-meter (164-foot) GPR transect (the transects are at a right angle to one another). I’m working with two others on completing the 50-meter GPR transect. At first, all seems to be going really well. But at 17.5 meters (57 feet), a major problem occurs. One of the batteries on an antenna fails, completely disabling the GPR. Having forgotten the spare batteries back at the study center, we are forced to return to the center early without any useful GPR data from the tundra site.
Once back at the study center, it’s decided that five members of our team will return after lunch to the tundra site (with fresh batteries, of course) to complete both of the GPR transects, while the remainder of the team (including myself) stays at the study center to prepare several new sets of thermocouples. As none of the members of the team has any experience in building thermocouples, this was to prove quite a challenging task.
Building a thermocouple consists of several steps, including cutting the dual-strand wire to length, stripping the insulation off the ends of the wires, twisting the wires at one end together, soldering the twisted wires together, coating the soldered twisted wires with nail polish to protect them from moisture, and shrink wrapping the soldered/coated wires to provide additional protection from the elements. It is the shrink-wrapped end of the wire that will act as the thermocouple to measure temperature in the air and soil at several depths.
The first set of thermocouples we are instructed to build consists of a bundle of six thermocouples, each approximately 40 meters (131 feet) in length. We extend our tape measure out 10 meters (33 feet) and lay it down on the floor. We then coil our wire back and forth until we have 40 meters off the spool of wire, and we cut it. So far, so good. Then we make the first of many mistakes—we let go of the wire. The wire recoils like a Slinky® (a spring-like toy) into a big, tangled ball.
While two members of our group work on untangling the wire ball, the rest of the group works on cutting the next length of wire. This time, we figure we will play it smart, holding the wire in place after cutting and then coiling it up. Seems to go smoothly, so we use the same procedure for the other four lengths of wire we need.
The next steps of stripping the wires, twisting, soldering, coating with nail polish, and shrink wrapping go smoothly. The final step to complete our first assignment is to group all six thermocouples into one bundle. To do that, we decide to lay out each thermocouple one-by-one on the floor and tape them to the floor until such time as we could bundle the wires together. While it is a great plan, the wire still has one more surprise for us. As we attempt to uncoil each thermocouple, they tangle and knot.
A bit frustrated, we decide to split our group, with four members working on untangling the coils of wire while the other three members work on the next sets of thermocouples. It takes 4.5 hours, but we are able to build three bundled sets of thermocouples, finally running out of wire. Fortunately, the group that returned to the tundra was successful in completing the two GPR transects. Time for a well-deserved dinner.
After dinner, it is time for another lecture. This lecture is on polar bears and is given by the executive director of the study center, Mike Goodyear. In addition to a lot of great pictures, Mike’s talk provides a tremendous amount of information on the biology and ecology of polar bears and the impact global warming is anticipated to have on them. The message to take away is that polar bears are going to be forced out of the lower arctic regions as global warming drastically reduces the length of time that the bears are going to be able to be out on the ice hunting for seals. This is a result of a drastic reduction in the length of time the surfaces of the oceans are frozen.
Friday, October 6, 2006
It’s another beautiful morning in our part of the Arctic. After yet another excellent breakfast, we head out to the first of two sites we will visit today (equipment willing). The site we will work at in the morning is referred to as the Fen. It’s a large, open area, relatively flat with some low hummocks (rounded knolls) that make the topography a bit more interesting. One very important difference between this site and the first two sites we visited is that this is a low-lying area with lots of water. So, we need our water boots. I find I am at the receiving end of some good-natured kidding about my bright yellow rubber boots, but I’ve spent a lot of time in the field. I know that in the wettest of environments, my boots will keep my feet warm and dry.
Because the ground is very muddy, the walk out to the site is both more challenging and tiring than our previous sites. The trail from the road to the site first goes through a wooded area, where the trail has been marked with some blue flags. As you break out of the trees onto the open wetland, there are far fewer blue flags, but the path is somewhat well-worn. At the muddiest points, they have laid down wooden pallets that provide some direction in addition to improving your footing.
Once out at the actual site, we quickly break up into groups. One group will complete the GPR transects, another will complete the topographical survey, and the third group (of which I am a member) will get to complete a new task—permafrost probing. The probe consists of a two-meter-long (6.6-foot-long) steel rod with a handle marked off in one-centimeter (0.4-inch) increments, with the markings upside down to make them easier to read while bending over. The basic idea is to drive the probe into the ground until you can go no farther. The challenge is to try to figure out the difference between hitting the permafrost versus hitting a rock. After a bit of time, we are able to discern that hitting rock feels like hitting concrete, while the permafrost layer feels spongy.
Probe in hand, my group of three heads out to acquire 60 depth readings. We are told that the locations for the readings are to be random, so we decide to take the readings from a large circular area, with 15 readings being taken randomly within each quadrant. We are also requested to split the readings equally between the low-lying areas, usually under water, and the small hummocks. We quickly find that we need to switch off the task of probing every quarter, as the ground provides considerable resistance to both pushing the probe in and pulling it out. In addition, the person performing the probing frequently finds himself or herself mired deep into the mud, requiring considerable effort to break free from the muck. The nice part about this task, however, is that it provides us the opportunity to watch the other groups in action.
Before we know it, the probing, GPR transects, and topographical survey of the Fen are complete, and it’s time to head back to the study center for lunch. The afternoon will be taken up performing the same tasks at another site referred to as the polygonal peat plateau (PPD) degrading. The GPR and topography groups will find the PPD far more challenging than the previous sites, as the peat plateaus are quite high, giving the area a rolling hills appearance.
No lecture after dinner tonight. Pete believes we are “lectured out.” We are all excited about tomorrow. It’s our day off, and we’ve all decided to go on a tundra buggy tour in search of the as-yet elusive polar bear.
Saturday, October 7, 2006
It’s already our day off. Surprisingly (or maybe not so), everyone is up and at breakfast early. We basically wolf down our food and then wait a bit impatiently for our ride into town.
Pete is our chauffer, and he gives us a bit of a side tour on our way into town. Our first stop is to see Miss Piggy. No, the Muppets aren’t in town. Miss Piggy is an airplane whose engines stalled shortly after takeoff, resulting in the plane crashing into the rocks just outside the airport (the crew of three survived). Many of our merry band climb into the now totally stripped plane for a closer look. Some even decide to climb into the pilot’s seat.
Next, we headed out to Cape Merry for a short history lesson and a long-distance look at the Prince of Whales fort built by the Hudson Bay Trading Company. We are told that it took 40 years to build this fort. Unfortunately, the fort wasn’t manned by professional soldiers. When 800 French soldiers decided to take the fort, the fur traders, masons, etc., were not up to the challenge of defending the fort, and it fell in one day without a single loss of life.
From Cape Merry, we head directly into town. We had made reservations for a half-day wildlife tour on a tundra buggy. The tour was to start after the train from Winnipeg arrived in town with other visitors to Churchill who had also made reservations for the wildlife tour. The train is scheduled to arrive at 8:30 a.m., but it’s notorious for not being on time. We stop in at the main office of the touring company and are told to be back at the office at 12:30 p.m. Knowing we have several hours to kill, we head off to the other side of town, where we are dropped off at the Eskimo Museum with a promise from Pete that he will join us for dinner in town at 6 p.m.
With lots of time on hand, we head into the museum, which, although small, is packed with so many items that you could probably fill an entire day trying to see everything in the displays. In addition to many fascinating native artifacts, there are also great displays of nature, including an 800-pound polar bear, a bison, an arctic wolf, several arctic foxes, and numerous small mammals, such as the red squirrel and several birds.
After about 45 minutes, we decide to go and grab a quick bite to eat and some coffee. Our group then splits up, with some who want to go directly to the souvenir shops, while others, such as myself, decide to go to the Via Rail Station, which we have been told also has several displays for viewing. The train station does indeed have several incredible historic displays, including models of the fort and the Hudson Bay Trading Company’s work and storage facilities in the Churchill area. While visiting the train station displays, we realize it’s getting close to 12:30 p.m., so it’s off to the tour office we go.
Once at the office, we find out that we still have about a half hour to pass before we can board the bus that will take us to the tundra buggy. That’s plenty of time to do some more souvenir shopping. Finally, it’s time to board the bus. We head downtown to the train station to pick up the other customers who will join us on the tour. From the train station, we have a 20- to 25-minute ride to the tundra buggy terminal.
The tundra buggies are basically incredibly huge versions of a bus, with about 1.5 to 1.8 meters (five to six feet) of clearance beneath the chassis. They are custom-built right in Churchill, using the drive train off of old fire engines (purchased online, no less). They have an aluminum chassis to which the passenger compartment is chained (not bolted, as in most vehicles). The tundra buggies are powered by huge diesel engines that are surprisingly fuel efficient. They are designed to travel over extremely rough terrain and through deep water.
Due to the extremely rough roads we are traversing, we need to move rather slowly. The first 1.5 to 2 hours go by very slowly, as there is nothing to see on the tundra other than some rocks, a few trees, some small ponds, and Hudson Bay. Finally, though, our patience is rewarded with a fabulous sighting—a polar bear sleeping on a small spit of land going out into the bay. Of course, everyone rushes to one side of the buggy to take pictures. After about 15 minutes of just watching the bear sleep, we get a bit discouraged that perhaps we won’t get to see more of this bear. Then, to our delight, the bear looks up and around and then goes back to sleep.
This pattern of briefly waking up occurs several times over the course of the next half hour. Thinking that we should get a different angle on the bear, the driver turns the buggy around. We wait another 15 minutes, then decide it might be time to continue on. As if the bear knew it was going to lose its audience, it begins to stand up. Stretching and yawning, the bear at first only rises up on its front legs. Finally, it stands up on all four legs, stretches some more, and then proceeds to walk closer to the buggy. It stops midway to the buggy, turns around, squats, and proceeds to answer nature’s call. Having taken care of its business, the bear walks a short distance, lies down, and goes back to sleep. Now we decide it is truly time to move on.
As we head back to the tundra buggy terminal, we are blessed with a couple more encounters with nature. First, we come across a beautiful arctic fox. It quickly scurries away but stops at a distance to get a better look at us. The fox has already changed color from light brown, its summer color, to all white in preparation for winter. Farther down the road, we come across two flocks of ptarmigan, a bird that resembles a squab.
Once back at the tundra buggy terminal, we pile on board a bus for the return trip to Churchill. Back in town, we join Pete at a restaurant owned and operated by a Portuguese family. After a great supper, it’s time to head back to the study center for a good night’s rest.
Sunday, October 8, 2006
Today is the head chef’s day off. That means breakfast will consist of cereal, toast, or cinnamon buns. It’s not quite up to the standard we have gotten used to, but it’s good nevertheless.
After breakfast, we head out for our next sampling site, referred to as Tree Island. The name pretty much says it all. It’s literally a small group of trees in the middle of a field. The trees and brush make this site more challenging to complete the GPR and topographical surveys. Nevertheless, we are equal to the challenge. This is not one of the sites that requires the use of the permafrost probe.
After a nice lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches, salad, and vegetables, we head out for the afternoon to the Black Spruce Wetland. The Tree Island site from the morning, which we thought was fairly challenging, pales in comparison to this site. Large portions of this site are covered in water or extremely soft mud and have peat to depths of 15 to 20 centimeters (six to eight inches). To make it easier to reach this site, Pete has put down wooden pallets at strategic locations on the path to the site.
Once at the site, we find out exactly what we are up against. The transects at this site run through areas of deep water, into trees, and through brush. The areas of deep water pose the biggest challenge for those completing the GPR survey. The antennae are not waterproof, thus they must not be immersed in the water. Instead, they must be held on the surface of the water, giving one’s arms a good workout.
The topographical surveying is not much easier to complete. The water, trees, and brush make the positioning of the rod very difficult. Trees and brush also make it difficult to see the rod for those looking through the transect.
This site also requires permafrost probing. The group performing this task (which includes me) doesn’t find this task any less challenging than the tasks the other groups are completing. This site has an abnormally high concentration of subsurface rock, forcing our group to probe more than 200 locations instead of the usual 60 in order to find locations where we can get down to the permafrost. The water adds an additional challenge in that in order to get the correct measurement to the permafrost (water is not included in the depth measurement), we need to stick our hands into the water, grasp the rod where it feels like it is entering the sediment, then pull the rod out in order to read the graduated markings on the rod.
Needless to say, we are glad when we finally return to the study center. A nice warm supper perks us up for another of Pete’s evening lectures, which is on land forms. The lecture touches on land forms we have already seen in the field and provides additional information on how they were formed.
Monday, October 9, 2006
The head chef is back on duty, and it’s Thanksgiving Day in Canada. We’re promised a traditional thanksgiving meal for supper.
Today will be very challenging. The challenge does not come from the field environment we will work in or the tasks to be done. Instead, it is self imposed. We are out to set a new productivity record. Our challenge is to complete three field sites in one day.
After a nice warm breakfast, we’re off to the field. Our field site for the morning is referred to as the Polygonal Peat Plateau Aggrading (building up). The site has a series of polygonal centers (large, raised areas of ground covered with moss and lichens) with polygonal troughs in between. As with many of the other sites, we break up into three groups. One group performs the GPR survey, another the topographical survey, and the third (the group I’m in) the permafrost probing.
The permafrost layer at this site isn’t very deep, nor are there a lot of rocks, making the task of probing relatively easy. My band of three completes the probing well before either of the other two complete their tasks. As a reward, we get assigned another new task. We are going to construct two insect traps. A trap consists of several pieces, including an aluminum soda can with the top cut off, a plastic beaker, a wooden doughnut with three short legs attached (looks a bit like a small toilet seat), a round cover for the doughnut made out of wood with a wooden handle, and a wooden stake.
The traps are assembled by burying the aluminum can flush with the surface of the soil, inserting the plastic beaker into the can (the beaker will be filled later with some alcohol to kill and preserve any insects that fall into the trap), placing the doughnut on legs directly over the can and beaker combination, putting the cover on the doughnut, and then putting a stake in the ground to mark the location of the trap. The basic idea is that insects, such as spiders that surprisingly burrow through the snow in winter, will come upon the trap and fall into the beaker with alcohol. A simple but effective trap.
My group moves off to a neighboring plot of land, about 150 to 200 meters (492 to 656 feet) from the site where the other two groups are still working, to build the insect traps. At first, we try to use an open-top aluminum can to core into the ground. This doesn’t prove to be a successful method, so we use one of the wooden stakes to dig a small hole in a trough near where a study site has already been marked off with four stakes. That works much better, and in a matter of 15 to 20 minutes, we complete the construction of the two traps.
As we survey our handiwork, a pickup truck carrying a load of firewood drives past us on the road that brought us near to our worksite. It continues down the road and disappears around a bend in the road. Shortly after disappearing from sight, we hear a shotgun blast from the direction the truck was last seen. It sounds a lot like a cracker shell used to scare off bears. Realizing that the bear might have been scared off in our direction, we decide to head back to rejoin the rest of the group.
Hearing the gun shot, Pete calls to the entire team and instructs them to gather together in a group behind him. My group is still about 150 meters (492 feet) from the rest of the team. Suddenly, Pete shouts out “RUN TO THE VAN NOW, GO!” This can mean only one thing—Pete has spotted the bear. In fact, the bear is running down the road and is only about 100 meters (328 feet) away from my group and closing fast. The sound of Pete’s voice fortunately scares the bear, which promptly veers off into the woods. We’re definitely glad that our tasks at this site are complete and it’s time to head back to the warmth, comfort, and safety of the study center.
After a hearty lunch and a chance to catch our breath from our earlier experience, we head out still hopeful that we will be able to complete the surveying of two more sites and set a new productivity record. The good news is that we won’t be doing any permafrost probing at these two sites.
After a 20- to 25-minute ride, we arrive at the first site of the afternoon, which is referred to as Pete’s Planted Forest. This site had the misfortune of being burned twice in the mid to late 1900s. To help this site recover quicker, Pete and his predecessors have been planting 100 to 200 trees each year. We will get the chance to help Pete plant this year’s trees later this week.
The planted forest site is fairly level but is still somewhat of a challenge due to dead trees and brush in our way. Of course, we are up to the challenge and, after two hours, we are on our way to the burned forest site located about 10 minutes away from our present location. We did make one change from our previous sites. We assigned two individuals the task of “bear watcher.” Old dogs can learn new tricks.
The burned forest is even easier to survey than the planted forest, and as a result, it takes less than two hours to complete our tasks. As a reward for our record-setting performance, Pete takes us to a nearby archeological site to show us some stone tools that are about 3,000 years old. One of the stones was used as a raw material for making arrow heads; the other was used as a woodworking tool.
We arrive back at the study center as new record holders and are rewarded with an incredible Thanksgiving Day dinner complete with turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce—the works. Clearly, we have much to be thankful for; a wonderful meal, great fellowship, a lifetime opportunity courtesy of Earthwatch, and, last but not least, our hides still intact.
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
The forecast for today indicates that the weather is going to take a turn for the worse, with a prediction of either rain or blowing snow. As we bundle up, we decide it would be wise to put on our raingear and our rubber boots. All bundled up, we look like snowmen and snowwomen as we pile into the van. Today’s destination is the White Spruce Upland site.
We will need to do a bit of extra work to prepare the GPR for the wet weather we will be working in today. We cover the boxes on the antennae containing the electronic circuit boards with two-gallon plastic bags, looping the fiber optic cable so that any water running down the wire will not drip on the circuit board boxes or cable connections. We also tape down the bags so they don’t blow off.
I am working with the GPR group today. As we start our first 50-meter survey, the rain begins to change to snow. The terrain at this site is pretty rugged, with many trees, bushes, mounds, and troughs. It takes longer than normal to work our way down the 50-meter tape. We find ourselves having to go around many obstacles and taking our measurements on very uneven ground.
Our second 50-meter survey, at 90 degrees to the first, is much easier to traverse, and we are grateful for that, since the wind has picked up and now the snow is being blown horizontal to the ground. Before we know it, the job is done.
The group performing the topographical survey also finds this site to be extremely challenging. The trees are frequently in the line of sight of the transect and the rod. Fortunately, this site is relatively flat, reducing the number of sample points required to complete the survey. The topographical survey crew is able to finish their survey before the GRP group completes theirs.
With all of our tasks done, we pile into the van, grateful for a chance to get out of the wind and snow. We’re equally grateful to get back to the study center, where a nice warm lunch awaits us.
After lunch, we have some free time to do whatever we would like to do. A tentative plan is made to get together at 2:30 p.m. and head into town to wander a bit and pick up two of Pete’s graduate students at the airport. At 2:30, however, the weather is still quite nasty, with high winds and blowing snow. A quick call to the airport reveals that the airplane carrying the graduate students from Winnipeg to Churchill departed about 45 minutes late. As a result, we adjust our departure time for town to 3:30.
The appointed time arrives, and about half our team, including myself, are off to town. The winds and snow are still heavy, making the trip more difficult than normal. Once in town, we all split up and go our separate ways, agreeing upon a meeting point and time before splitting up.
As I walk from the middle of town to one of the far ends, the wind nearly knocks me down, and the snow pelts my face. Ducking into some of the shops along the way is the only sane means of getting through the town. I do a lot of window shopping, but I don’t purchase much.
Only four out of 10 in our group make it to the meeting point on time. The rest of the gang shows up about 20 minutes late. Once we’re all together, it’s time to head off to the airport, where we find that the graduate students’ plane has been delayed an additional hour. Fortunately for us, the airport terminal has several displays and many pictures for us to look at while we wait. At long last, much to our amazement, the plane appears as if out of nowhere. Finally, we can pick up the graduate students (one of whom has arrived wearing shorts and flip flops) and head back to the study for dinner.
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
As we look out our windows in the morning, we are greeted by a very arctic-looking site. There is still snow on the ground from yesterday, some of which is now in drifts over a foot deep.
Our schedule this morning is a bit different from what we are used to. We get a short lecture from Steve, one of Pete’s graduate students, on “Tree-Ring Radial Growth in Response to Climate.” The lecture includes many new terms, such as dendrochronology (the dating of trees from the number of tree rings) and dendroclimatology (the change in tree ring patterns due to changes in the climate). Steve presents a wealth of information in the form of diagrams, charts, and actual pictures for us to digest.
In addition to the lecture, Steve also gives us a practical lesson on how to core trees. He gives us the basic rundown on how to use the Swedish incremental borer, with the promise that we will have lots of opportunities for hands-on experiences in the field. He then passes around two of the tree borers and cautions us that we will need to take great care to not lose the core extractor and to be sure we don’t damage or nick the borer’s edge.
Pete’s other graduate student, Jeff, is also given a few minutes to prime us on what to expect during the retrieval of the root crowns from shrubs. Unlike the tree coring, which does little damage to the tree, retrieval of the root crown from a shrub can, unfortunately, only be accomplished by killing the shrub.
After a brief break, we head out to try our hand at coring and digging up shrubs. Steve starts our hands-on training by actually taking a core with the Swedish incremental borer. After removing the core from the borer and showing us the rings in the core, he shows us how to package the core in straw for safe transport back to the lab.
We next get training on how to use a clinometer to determine the height of a tree and how to use a diameter tape (basically a meter tape designed to convert the circumference of a tree directly into the diameter). To speed up the hands-on training, Pete decides to split us into two groups. Then, as promised, we all get a chance to try our hand at tree coring.
Having completed our coring training, we now move on to shrub root crown sampling. The tools of this sampling technique are basic and include a limb saw, a limb pruner, a hatchet, and shovels.
In short order, we cut off most of the stems from a willow bush. We then use the shovels to dig out the bush, using the limb pruner and a hatchet to cut the roots holding the bush in place. Once the bush is free, any remaining stems are trimmed off within 2.5 centimeters (one inch) of the root crown, and any remaining soil or roots are cleaned off until only the root crown remains. The crown is labeled and placed in a plastic bag for transport back to the lab. The hole in the ground is filled back in, and some of the stems cut from the crown are planted in the hole in the hope they will take root and grow into new scrubs, replacing the one we took in kind.
After lunch, we dress in our raingear and rubber boots in order to once again head out to the Black Spruce Wetland to core and sample scrubs for real. As we travel down the snow-covered roads to our site, we comment on the lack of any other vehicle tracks. Pete is the first to notice, however, that although we are the first vehicle on these roads, we’re not alone. Off to the side of our vehicle on the road are polar bear tracks proceeding in our same direction of travel. We follow the tracks for quite a distance down the road and are relieved to eventually see them disappear into the woods.
At the study site, we break up into three groups. Two groups of three will work with Steve on tree coring, while the remaining group of four will work with Jeff acquiring shrub root crowns. Pete decides he will head off on his own to check on some of his other stations and download some meteorological and temperature data.
Despite being first timers, all of the groups are successful in their respective tasks. Cores are obtained from 17 black spruce trees, and six shrub root crowns are obtained from willow, glandular birch, and Labrador tea bushes. The tree corers are even successful in finding a pair of gloves lost by one of their teammates—no small task in this part of the world.
Back at the study center, we are treated to yet another incredible meal of barbecued spare ribs and chicken. After dinner, we get together to discuss the status of the topographical and GPR data entry/manipulation and the schedule of items to be completed in the now brief amount of time remaining before the end of this expedition. We are then given the opportunity to hear more about the results and conclusions to date from Steve’s previous coring events before we head off to the computer room for another delightful evening of last-minute data crunching.
Thursday, October 12, 2006
The schedule for this morning is rather light, as part of our group has decided to try a sled dog experience (actually, it’s more of a wagon ride at this time of year when there isn’t enough snow on the ground). After breakfast, those not going on the sled ride (including me) head out to first download data from a logger at the re-forestation site only about 10 minutes from the study center. In the field next to this station, we get an opportunity for a close look at one of the rockets.
Then we are off to the White Spruce Upland site, where we will core some trees and obtain some shrub root crowns. Although there are only four of us initially, the work at this site goes smoothly. After an hour, we are joined by the rest of the team, and the pace of the work picks up. Despite the delay in the morning, we still manage to get about a dozen cores and seven or eight shrub root crowns.
Pete has decided to make the afternoon a bit more challenging and have us put all of our new skills to use. Shortly after lunch, we pile into the van one last time with all of our equipment and head out to a recently re-activated site cleverly named “Airport” (obviously because it is adjacent to the Churchill airport).
Upon arriving at the site, we break up into five groups in order to take a 60-meter GPR transect and a corresponding topographic survey, core trees, obtain shrub root crown samples, and probe for permafrost. Despite the difficult terrain, we complete all of our tasks in a timely fashion.
Back at the study center, we are treated to a special supper, which includes some traditional local food items. Tonight’s supper includes arctic char, caribou, and banyan (a type of bread) along with crispy chicken, rice, various salads, and dessert. Truly a meal fit for a North Country king.
No lecture tonight. Instead, after a bit of last-minute data crunching and log entries, we get together to review the work we have done in the past days and hear Pete’s interpretation of the data. We also spend a good two hours reviewing all of the pictures taken by our team, which were downloaded during the course of the past 10 days and compiled together for everyone to take home. After a lot of oohs, ahs, and laughter, we retire to our rooms to pack. We go to bed with mixed feelings of happiness to be going home to loved ones, and sadness of leaving new friends and a place we’ve called home for 10 days.
Friday, October 13, 2006
For nine out of the 12 members of our team, today is a travel day home. The van we have been using all week has broken down. Consequently, they will need to use two sport utility vehicles (SUVs) to take the nine individuals to the airport. As there is not enough room in the vehicles to take Pete and the three of us remaining, we have to say our goodbyes at the study center. After many hugs, handshakes, and promises to write one another, the group of nine departs for the airport.
Those of us remaining behind will assist Pete with several tasks before we are taken into Churchill in the afternoon. First, we work on disassembling and cleaning the GPR, which we then pack carefully into its travel case. Next, we repair an umbrella that broke during the high winds encountered on Tuesday, and we remove tape markers from the floor used during the prior construction of the 40-meter thermister cables. Batteries from the GPR are charged and packed. In addition, two sets of thermister cables are secured to wooden dowels to aid in the process of burying the thermisters five, 10, 20, 40, and 80 centimeters into the ground.
After our last lunch at the study center, a total of seven of us pile into an SUV to head out to one of Pete’s re-forestation sites to plant white spruce seedlings. After a false start, we have to head back to the study center for another shotgun, as the one Pete originally brought out jammed during loading.
We take a few minutes in the driving snow to work out the most efficient way to plant our trees. Basically, Pete, with an assistant, places groups of three to four seedlings at the locations where they are to be planted. Three of us then follow and cut the tough tundra turf with shovels, while the remaining two individuals place the seedlings into the cuts and tamp the turf gently back into place. After a few minutes, we are working like a well-oiled machine (possibly motivated by the icy cold wind and the snow pelting our faces). After a little more than an hour, we have 258 seedlings planted.
Back at the study center, we decide it might be a good idea to head into town, as we are dressed (in our raingear, soaked from head to toe) and we can change and clean up in our hotel rooms and hang up our field clothes to dry before packing them into our bags. Jeff and Steve volunteer to take us into town, since they need to pick up additional supplies for Pete anyway. We pile our bags into the back of an SUV, and, after a few more hugs, handshakes, and goodbyes, we head into Churchill.
Once in town, our now very small team of three expedition members agrees to meet at 7 p.m. at a local restaurant for our last supper together. We are dropped off at our respective hotels to clean up, change, and make some last visits to the souvenir shops if we so choose. At the stroke of seven, we all walk into the restaurant at the same time. During the course of our meal, we find out that there is to be live county and western music at the very location we are eating. All three of us agree to stay at the restaurant after supper for some entertainment. Much to our surprise, the entertainment is actually a political fundraiser for a local candidate, and the band only plays three songs. Still, it was better than sitting in our hotel rooms watching television.
With the entertainment complete, we head back to our hotels, stopping only for some last hugs and goodbyes. Team IV of the 2006 Earthwatch expedition Climate Change at the Arctic’s Edge is now completely disbanded.
Saturday, October 14, 2006
After breakfast at the motel (not up to the same standard I had gotten used to at the study center) and a bit of packing, it is time to head to the airport. The taxi ride to the airport seems shorter than the ride into town. The scenery by now is familiar to me, and I am able to catch one last glimpse of the polar bear jail. I wonder how many bears have gotten into trouble during my nearly two-week stay and are now residents in the jail.
It feels strange being at the Churchill airport and not seeing any of the faces of my fellow expeditioners. As if to make to sure I won’t forget my experiences in Churchill, the weather is up to its old tricks, with strong gusts and the occasional driving snow. I am wondering to myself whether my flight will take off as scheduled. But once again to my surprise, we take off nearly on time to Winnipeg. After all, this is the norm for the pilots at this time of the year.
My connections from Winnipeg to Montreal and Montreal to Ottawa are all on time. Before I know it, I’m loading my luggage into my truck and am on the road home. Twelve and a half hours after departing Churchill, I am pulling into my driveway in Massena. I am glad to be home, but at the same time a bit sad that the adventure is over.
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Climate Change at the Arctic's Edge
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