Sasanka Thilakasiri's Diary


Tuesday, April 04, 2006 Friday, September 29, 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  

Tuesday, April 04, 2006 When I saw the Earthwatch email come through from management calling for any expressions of interest, I thought nothing of it at the time, because I had only been employed at Alcoa for a short while. I had heard of the Earthwatch Institute before and thought that it would be a pretty neat experience for later on in life. It was not until a couple of colleagues convinced me to apply, suggesting that I might have a good shot at it, that I revisited the email and decided to give it a serious go.
 
Climate change issues have always been my passion, so I was glad that there was a specific expedition on monitoring climate change. I was/am very fortunate to be currently working for the Environmental Development Group of the Technology Delivery Group (TDG)—Alcoa’s global research and development division. There’s a lot of synergy with work and my long-term career goals of environmental impacts and sustainable development. Needless to say, I tailored my application toward this and tried to demonstrate my genuine interest in the area. After spending a decent amount of time on it, I was pretty happy with my application in the end but really had no idea on whether it would be successful or not.
 
Several months later, having returned to work after a couple of weeks leave, I was trawling through the hundreds of emails in my inbox and saw one from the Earthwatch Institute. I just about fell off my chair! I had been successful and was off to Canada to monitor climate change at the edges of the Arctic! I had to keep re-reading the email to make sure it was really happening. "The edges of the Artic"—brilliant! This is an area I had always wanted to visit, and now I get the chance to do so in a capacity that is orientated toward my career goals. I feel very lucky and privileged.
 
I slowly broke the news to my colleagues, family, and friends, who were thrilled for me. I have a lot of support and interest from everyone about the expedition. This will really make the whole trip that much more worthwhile, as I know that I will have an excellent opportunity to share what I have learned when I get back.
 
October is still a very long time away—long enough to put it to the back of my mind and get on with things, and yet still within my horizon so I don’t forget about it. I guess there's plenty of time to go through all the pre-departure preparations.
 
I devoured all of the information on my expedition that was available to me pretty quickly and have already been researching about the region when I can. Although I come from a science and technology background, there will be several aspects of the research involved that I will have had no experience on. Although Earthwatch ensures us that all the necessary training will be done on the expedition itself, it certainly won’t hurt to be prepared as best I can.
 
I noticed that another one of my fellow Earthwatch fellows who hails from Alcoa China will be joining me on the same expedition, so I've made initial contact with him to share the excitement. I think that's what I'm going to enjoy the most—the opportunity to interact with people from different cultures and backgrounds, drawing on and learning from their experiences, will be awesome.
 
I got a letter the other day from Earthwatch advising about what to do to start arranging travel, etc. But really…October! Plenty of time, right? So in the seemingly countless weeks that follow, while taking all the good-natured polar bear and penguin jokes from my workmates with a laugh, I will start getting my travel preparations sorted and continue my research into climate change indicators within the Arctic regions. These diary entries are a great idea, and I'll definitely throw in a few more entries relating to my pre-trip planning in the coming months.
 
I'm really looking forward to doing what I can to contribute toward a successful expedition and use my skills to the best of my ability. Thank you Alcoa and Earthwatch for this unique opportunity to make a difference for the better!

Friday, September 29, 2006 Wow, that was a fast six months. There I was, happily twiddling my thumbs in expectation that I have plenty of time until I leave for Canada. All of a sudden, I fly out tonight!
 
Trip preparations were generally pretty smooth. I got all my forms in, had my medical exam, got a new passport—all the standard pre-travel rituals. I was a bit concerned with my lack of snow gear, but, fortunately, there was a sale on ski gear in the city a couple of weeks ago. I was able to get some good quality apparel for 60% off. The tricky part was squeezing all of the bulky gear into my backpack, as I am traveling on afterward. I did not want to take much, and, as such, space was at a premium!
 
I have been in touch with my project leader, Professor Kershaw at the Churchill Northern Studies Research Centre, and all is well for my arrival. He has given us a heads-up on some of the work we will be doing, and it looks fascinating. Apparently, there will be a focus on ground-penetrating radar techniques, which is neat, as I have been studying a unit on satellite remote sensing at the university this semester. Hopefully, there will be some synergy between the two.
 
I have a pretty torrid day of travel ahead of me, with four separate connecting flights and the associated transit to get me to Churchill with a brief overnight stay in Winnipeg, Northern Canada. Hopefully, an Eagles win this Saturday will keep me in good spirits!
 
When next I write, I shall be at the edges of the Arctic.

Tuesday, October 3, 2006 It was my first time crossing the Pacific, and the lady who had the window seat was kind enough to swap with me for a bit so that I could get a look. There really was not much to see, though the concept of it all was cool.
 
I’ll never complain about jet lag again when making the simple trip across Australia. Traveling against the spin of the Earth’s rotation is certainly not fun! I left Melbourne at 10 a.m. and arrived in Los Angeles at 3 a.m. the next morning. Needless to say, this knocked me for six straight away.
 
The day of travel was indeed torrid; 14 hours to LA, six hours in the LA airport (a gaudy yet dynamic place stuck in a 1980’s motif), two hours to Denver, and then another two hours to Winnipeg across the U.S.-Canadian border. I had a short overnight stay in Winni, which was great to recharge.
 
The next morning, I bumped into a few of my fellow expedition teammates (now I know why they made us wear our T-shirts!) at the airport, and we all boarded a small plane for the three-hour ride to the remote town of Churchill. Flying over the tundra in the small two-prop plane, I thought the landscape reminded me of the “Dead Marshes” in the movie “Return of the King”: vast, flat, swampy, and pockmarked with pools, with small scatterings of trees.
 
A bit about Churchill and its significance. The town is literally at the edge of the Arctic, and it’s a remote place not accessible by road. It sits at the very center of a variety of different climatic regions, making it an ideal place to study the effects of climate change. It’s where the sub-Arctic tundra and the Arctic meet at the tree line. This allows the effects of climate change to be seen more clearly through a variety of ecological parameters. It’s also the confluence of several ecological zones and the immigration epicenter, of sorts, for many different animal species, numbering in the millions. And, yes, it’s polar bear central! Each year, starting around now, the period begins where the polar bears return to the ice after spending the summer on the land for what’s known as their walking hibernation. More on polar bears later.
 
What makes Churchill most significant is what’s underneath. There’s this stuff called peat, which we’ve all heard of before. In cold climates, when a tree falls, it takes forever to decompose and instead gets incorporated into this soil-like matter. So, peat has a very high carbon content, containing something like 30% of the earth’s terrestrial carbon content, I think. There’s about a two-kilometer-wide (1.2-mile-wide) swath of peat that runs around the planet in the sub-Arctic tundra, and it’s locked in place below the ground by the cold temperatures. But as the permafrost starts to rise, it brings this peat higher up. Because of the ice, instead of releasing carbon dioxide (CO2), the peat releases methane (CH4), which is a much more potent greenhouse gas.
 
So when the peat goes, it will be a massive step change in the global carbon balance—for the worse. It would be something like releasing 60% of what’s in the atmosphere right now. To quote one of the scientists here, it would be like a “hydrogen bomb going off.” So anyway…Churchill is a good spot to look at key climatic indicators, and the peat/permafrost ingress will be the focus of our work for the next ten days.
 
The Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC) is really well-equipped, and the dorms are very comfortable (some remarkably hot showers, also!). It has been dubbed the “Hilton of research centers!”  Get this; it used to be a rocket-launching facility. Part of the Canadian space program, the center was used to test fire atmospheric rockets. It was decommissioned in the 1980’s, and most of the old launching towers are still erect, though dilapidated. It’s like something out of a science fiction movie, where an evil genius would make his evil underground “lair.”
 
The place is a bit of a rabbit warren, which I personally think adds to its charm. There is one particular hallway, which connects the dorms to the main building, that is not insulated and is appropriately dubbed the “Arctic corridor.”  Oh yeah, it’s kinda cold here, too! The days on average are around the 3° to 5° Celsius (37° to 41° Fahrenheit) mark. With the sun, it’s a bit better. But it’s the wind that really cuts you, with the wind chill adding an extra 10 to 15 degrees (or rather, subtracting).
 
The rest of the team members are very nice, and we make a very diverse bunch. There are three other corporate groups (including Alcoa—myself and an environmental engineer for the New York smelting operations) plus one elderly lady who has been on 19 previous Earthwatch gigs! All up, we come from Australia, the USA, China, the UK, Portugal, France, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland. We even have a journalist from the Daily Telegraph (a popular London paper) who has joined us to write about the whole thing.
 
I’ll be getting into the specifics of the research tomorrow. Can’t wait.

Wednesday, October 4, 2006 The night before, we had a brief walk around the site, as well as a tour of the facility. We then met out principle investigator (PI), Dr. Pete Kershaw, who is the guru of permafrost and climate change issues, for that matter. He’s a very friendly Canadian who knows a lot.
 
This morning after breakfast (should mention that the food here is pretty good and covers pretty much all the bases—so much for having to rough it!), we had our first training tutorial at using the ground-penetrating radar (GPR) equipment. This is used to get images of the ground, specifically to characterize its nature and obviously compare it to past images to note the rate of change of things like the permafrost, etc.
 
The equipment itself, though looking complicated, was pretty easy to use. After a quick practice run, we were out in the field performing GPR analysis of an abandoned gravel pit (another practice run before we get into the real deal). We also did some basic surveying work to get a topographical lay of the land.  
 
One of the first briefings we got here was on bear safety. As I mentioned before, this is polar bear central, and although we have yet to see one, the signs of them are everywhere. The entire CNSC is bear-proof, with “bear-bars” on all the windows. The first rule for whenever you walk out the front door is to “look left, look right, and look up!” That’s right; the bears have been known to climb the roof of the center! Our PI or the senior assistant who accompanies us in the field always carries a shotgun with empty crackers, as well as live shells in case the bear doesn’t get the hint. Keeps you on edge!
 
In the evening, Pete gave a talk on climate change. The usual interesting and frightening stuff…the same sorts of figures I have seen before in my master’s studies, but this one had some other interesting details on peat and permafrost. It really contextualized everything nicely and highlighted the importance of this region in terms of its climate sensitivity that I mentioned before.
 
The center also has what’s called an aurora dome, a clear acrylic dome at the top of the third floor for viewing the aurora borealis…which happens 24/7 here, though it’s a question of having the right cloud conditions. Nothing yet, but I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to see the northern lights before the trip is up.
 
One of the neat things about having a team comprising of members from all over the globe was that everyone had their own card game to play. We decided to each teach a game every night. There’s a pool table and a fooseball table here, but they are strangely put out in the back lab, which is freezing….funny that.
 
As I said, the team members, 12 in total, are pretty diverse and of varying age gaps. Surprise, surprise, I am once again the youngest of the team! There’s another girl, Catherine from the UK (ecologist), who is also 25; Xavier from France, 26 (internet technology); Yvonne from China, 26 (commerce); and Marcus from the U.S., 30 (project management). They form the younger brigade and seem to be forming my immediate friendship group. There are quite a few chemists and engineers, too, so I feel right at home! All are great and very easy to get along with.
 
The place has high-speed internet connection, which is great to keep abreast of the important websites like BBC News and the Australian Football League website. Oh yeah, I have been trying to explain Aussie-rules football to everyone and, more importantly, how fantastic the Eagles (whose scarf I wear around) grand final win was!  So good!
 
Oh, I should also mention that it’s been great to hear from everyone who has dropped me a line. I would love to keep hearing any feedback that people may have and will definitely get onto replying to the individual emails as soon as I can. So thanks for the “smothers brothers.” Please keep them coming.
 
More news as it comes to hand.

Thursday, October 5, 2006 I’m so in the swing of things now. In addition to the diaries that Ralph (the other Alcoan) and I have to write, the entire team also keeps up a group blog. The first blog was heard at our first morning briefing at 6:45 a.m. (this is becoming our standard start time).
 
This was our first full day in the field. We all bundled up, did a quick bear check, and piled into our travel vehicle. A 1980s Ford unit battles on in a testament to the human spirit in these harsh conditions. It also interestingly runs on propane…never seen that before.
 
We headed off into the tundra and got into the GPR and the surveying work. The landscape of this place blows me away. It’s harsh and barren, yet still teeming with colors and life, with all kinds of different mosses and lichens woven into a fine tapestry straight from nature’s own Persian rug mart. A slight problem with the receiver not reading the radar data meant that only survey work could be done, so we split (left) for lunch a bit early.
 
I should also mention that I am eating far too much here—close to twice as much as I would be eating normally! The place is just so well-stocked, and the extreme cold makes it easy to justify. With no exercise either, all my efforts at reaching my FLESH medical target (the work guys will know about this) before I left has been eroded already, I’m certain.
 
After lunch, half the group went off to finish the GPR, and I joined a small team to build some thermocouples. These are temperature sensors used in the field…a bit of wire stripping, some soldering, some heat shrinking….easy, straight out of shop classes at the university. Oh no. What followed was close to one of the most challenging things I have ever done.
 
See, we had to build multiple cable lengths of 40 meters (131 feet) using this cable that, if left unattended, had a mind of its own and would entangle itself immediately, which is exactly what happened. So what followed next was about six of us spending close to three hours untangling this cable, running it out in 40 meter lengths through the back lab, and bunching them together. It took me back to those team-building camps in high school, where they would give you inane tasks as team-building exercises. Nevertheless, we triumphed…a win for the good guys and a win for measuring the effects of climate change. The meticulousness of field work, indeed. Bring it on!
 
Later on in the evening, we had a talk from the director of the CNSC who was an expert on polar bears. Okay, it was not related to climate change, but it had some pretty fascinating information.
 
Here are the highlights. The bears are cunning hunters. They are very fast and can out-sprint a racehorse off a standing start! There’s no chance of ever outrunning one. They are 99.9% carnivores and almost exclusively eat seals, mainly for their fat. Oftentimes, they eat only the skin and fat, leaving the meat. They have a unique system whereby they recycle their own muscle tissue and don’t really have to worry about putting it on (okay, now I’m jealous). When the winter ice melts, they come on land and prepare for a period that’s called walking hibernation, where they pretty much don’t eat anything. They can’t get at the seals, and most other things don’t sit well with them. This lasts for about three to four months and ends right around now, when they all start to head toward the ice. This happens around Churchill, making it the center for polar bear sightings.
 
We may be here a bit on the early side, but fingers crossed there’ll be a chance for some photo opportunities soon.

Friday, October 6, 2006 We started at 6.45 a.m. as usual with the daily briefing. Looking at the weather forecast, Pete decided we should go to the Fen site this morning and the Polygonal Peat Plateau Degrading this afternoon (raised mounds of peat). It’s time to get the feet dirty and test out the gumboots.
 
The wind, fortunately, died down, and the sun was out. Despite the cold, it was a pretty nice day to be in a swamp! Same work again—GPR, surveying, and, this time, an added task of measuring permafrost depth with a penotrometer (metal pole). Driving the pole into the ground until one hit the harder permafrost allowed the height of the permafrost to be measured. Remember that we want the permafrost to be as high as possible to lock in the organic peat. At some points, it was almost two meters (6.6 feet)—the length of the pole! Not good. The average was around 0.5 meters (1.6 feet). We’ll only know how this compares to earlier years later on in the project.
 
The Fen was another example of the brilliant contrasting landscapes that exist out here—flat-lying swamps, full of colors and mild undulations. The Dead Marsh for sure—“Don’t follow the lights!”  At times, your foot would sink beyond your knee and could really get you stuck. Richard, our journalist friend, almost fell in at one stage when he and I were operating the GPR. We pulled him out, had a laugh, and all was well. Good times.
 
So there I was, eating and not getting any exercise. I was pretty much resigned that I wouldn’t be going for a run in a while. To my joy, Pete goes out running on the tundra regularly! So this evening, out we went. Marcus was a bit of a marathon runner, and Xavier, who was also pretty fit, made up our running posse. As the sun started to set across the tundra, out we headed. Pete had a small revolver loaded and ready in case the bears were also out running! The standard run was about 13 kilometers (eight miles)! Although I run a bit at home, I have never, ever gone for more than seven kilometers (4.3 miles) at any one time, so now was the time to suck it in! It was a combination of magical exhilaration and blistering agony. The scenery was unreal. As we went, Pete would point out heaps of different landforms and vegetation.
 
But the run was punishing. The tundra itself is quite springy, so it is quite tough to run on in parts. You’ve got to keep watching where you step, and the irregular surface takes extra effort (kind of like beach running). Not to mention, it was very nippy (sub-zero with the wind, yet it surprisingly got hot quickly). We were, at times, running into a headwind in excess of 30 kilometers-per-hour (18.6 miles-per-hour). For those who run a bit, you’ll know that this is a mental headwind to run against!
 
We finished the 13 kilometers in just under an hour (just over 4.5 minutes per kilometer, thanks for asking!). Although I was in agony at the end, I was so glad I did it. The experience was one of the best ways I could ever imagine seeing the Arctic, though let’s see how I pull up tomorrow morning….

Saturday, October 7, 2006 Now that we’ve had a solid three to four days of work, it was time for a day off. We have one allotted day off in this expedition, and when we took it was a question of which day suited Pete best and also what options in town were available.
 
There was a guided walk by a local man who charged a small fortune to tell us information about the terrain that Pete was telling us anyway. We were too late for beluga whale watching, and the chopper rides were a bit of a pinch on the wallet. The fact that none of us had seen a polar bear yet pretty much allowed for a consensus of going on the tundra buggy to try our luck. This being the peak tourist season, the two buggy companies make out like absolute bandits by charging a premium and insisting on filling up the buggy. Despite being a group of 12, we had to wait until the train full of tourists from Winnipeg arrived, which was not until 1 p.m. This gave us some time to explore the town of Churchill.
 
Pete was able to show us around for a bit and took us out for some sightseeing. There was this cool fort that was built by the British in 47 years and was then quickly razed to the ground by the French in one day shortly after it was finished…easy come, easy go.
 
What we saw next was really cool. There’s this crashed cargo plane, affectionately dubbed “Miss Piggy” by the locals, that went down in the 1970s on the outskirts of the town. This looked like something out of the TV show “Lost.” We were all debating whether it was safe or not to try and get onto the plane when, before we know it, Xavier (who I have nicknamed the “X-man” and have been so far unsuccessfully trying to get everyone else to call him that) had already scrambled up into the cockpit and was jerking on levers.
 
On to the town of Churchill, which really is nothing more than a few streets with a couple of clusters of houses around them. It’s got a very “Northern Exposure” (remember that TV show?) feel to it. It’s mainly kitted out to cater for the tourists that flock here for the bears and the whales, with hotels, gift shops, restaurants, and pubs. The Eskimo museum was certainly worth a look, though it was small and had more contemporary works, which, though cool, were not really my bag (preference). Upon visiting some of the other gift shops and finding “authentic” Inuit carvings that were “Carved in the Philippines,” I decided to be the responsible traveler and shop local at the Eskimo museum to purchase local digs if I got a chance.
 
On to the tundra buggies. These things are pretty absurd looking. They are large trucks (about three to four stories tall—out of polar bear reach) and remind me a bit of the massive dump trucks in the Pilbra or the Goldfields back home. They are constructed from old fire truck engines that were purchased by the buggy company online—I kid you not. The chassis is made from aluminum (the metal really is everywhere!) and then chained onto the axle! And yes, we rocked around a lot as a result! The buggies use old military tracks to get out into the tundra.
 
We were almost two hours into it and yet to see a bear. The Churchill motto of “Polar Bear Capital of the World” was starting to look a bit dubious. But then, all of a sudden out of nowhere, the crowd began to gather in the front of the buggy. And there she was…the polar bear. A single female was lying asleep. We watched her sleep for the better part of an hour (she would intermittently raise her head and blink). I say this in all sincerity—we could have been there for hours more. At long last, she stood up, stretched like a cat, and then started to plod around, taking backward steps. She then went to the toilet in front of us (don’t worry, we got it all on video), took another stroll, and then went back to sleep.
 
This little show doesn’t sound like much, but they really are majestic animals—just so powerful, commanding, pristine, and almost regal. I would go so far as to say it was the most impressive animal I have ever seen, and that was after watching one sleep and go to the bathroom! You understand now why wildlife photographers come and spend days watching these guys to get that one magical shot.
 
The buggy ride home yielded an arctic fox and some birdlife, and then it was on to a local diner in Churchill for wholesome arctic cooking (I had the non-arctic ribs, in case you were wondering). Pete came out to join us, and it was nice for everyone to have a sit-down dinner outside of the study center. Rui from Portugal, who is the master photographer of the group, bizarrely knew the owners of the diner, who were also Portuguese. As such, they offered a free bottle of fine Portuguese brandy to share with everyone. Spirits were high and all were getting along swimmingly. The team was definitely bonding well.  
 
It was back to the center and a quick look up at the aurora dome before bed. No northern lights. Oh well, at least we saw a bear. Not a bad day off at all.

Sunday, October 8, 2006 Following our day off, it was back to work. Today, we would be heading into some forest sites, the first of which was known as Tree Island. As the name implies, it was a small gathering of trees among the tundra. Once again, the diversity of the place blows you away. In this harsh environment, reasonable areas of forests can grow. It’s interesting to note that the northwest sides of the trees are a lot barer, as that is what faces the wind the most.
 
The high level of shrubs made for difficult GPR and survey work, but the team got through. I was on bear watch for a part of it and stayed outside the perimeter of the trees in doing so. Let me tell you, I have never experienced anything colder in my life. Though not cold air temperature-wise, the wind was so strong. Within minutes, I felt like my nose and toes were about to fall off. Notes for next time—bring my scarf and wear extra socks.
 
Following another hearty lunch, we had a 40-minute van ride to our most remote site—the Black Spruce (I think, anyway). The car ride was a chance for me to introduce my brand of stupid pass-the-time games, which went down well. Twenty questions was the biggest hit, with no one being able to guess my Billy the Kid one.
 
The Black Spruce site was amazing. It was like a cold swamp planet. Eric (chemical engineer from Shell, USA) correctly dubbed it Dagobah, and he was obviously a fellow “Star Wars” fan.
 
This has to be my favorite site so far (and was so for many others). It was swamp land where you would sink knee-deep into icy water, surrounded by multi-colored lichens and moss that were already starting to get lightly dusted with snow (yes, it started to snow!) and all dominated by towering black spruce. Stray but a few meters away, and you would lose sight of everyone.
 
Everyone was on bear watch. It was just awesome. Survey work was almost impossible, but we managed to get through. As the GPR team finished up, the wind picked up, and we all piled into the van with its very impressive heater.
 
In the evening after dinner, Pete gave us his talk on the formation of the local landform features. This was very interesting and highlighted the diversity of the place.
 
Another round of card games after this put an end to a tiring day. The meticulousness of field work against the backdrop of some stunning sites was starting to sink in nicely.

Monday, October 9, 2006 Today, we would be heading to another polygonal peat plateau aggrading (mounds of peat building up) for more of the same. We had the chance to set an Earthwatch record by doing more than three sites in one day. We were getting quite proficient at the three tasks so far (GPR, surveying, and permafrost probing), so we were all confident.
 
We were at the peat site, with the sun shining and the wind not too severe. The site itself was the closest to the study center, with the rocket launchers in clear view. All things were going along smoothly. I was on bear watch this morning, and the team finished up everything quite smartly. As we were packing up the gear, a small truck drove past on the road next to us and headed up the hill toward the study center. Some wood-cutters, I think.
 
A few minutes later, we heard the sound of a cracker shell from their direction. They had obviously seen something. Pete, while still in the middle of the site getting data from his meteorological station, quite calmly said that “it would be a good time to start getting the gear to the van.” So, we started to get the gear together, when all of a sudden Pete yelled out at us, “RUN TO THE VAN NOW, GO!” There was only one conclusion to be made. He had seen the bear that the truck had fired at (as a warning for us), and it was quite close!
 
We all dropped everything. Well, actually, all the gear still made it to the van. I was quite close and was carrying the GPR gear, so this got this back to the van. Only a few daypacks, which included mine, were left out.
 
Pete, with gun in one hand and binoculars in the other, still stuck around, gathered his data, and made his way back to the van. He told us that the bear was apparently only 150 meters (492 feet) away and heading down the road toward us! Ralph and Igne (Shell, Belgium) were the closest, as they were doing some work with insect traps and really had to bolt even faster! When Pete had yelled, the bear ducked off the road and into the bushes, where Pete lost sight of it.
 
As we drove back to the center, all our eyes were glued to the windows to see if we could get a glimpse of our polar assassin. There was none to be seen, but the adrenalin from our close encounter made for a hearty lunch as we geared up for two sites in the arvo and a chance at the record.
 
The first site after lunch was a planted forest that had been burned twice before and, as such, was being re-vegetated. If time permitted, we would also be planting some trees at the end of the expedition. More trees equal a greater number of carbon sinks (carbon sequestration), so it’s all good, people.
 
Once again, a lot of dense shrubs and, in this case, dead trees made for tough GPR work (which I was on for the first transect), but the thought of the record got us through quickly enough. The next site was another burned forest site only just down the road. This site was full of ghostly white spruce (I think they were white spruce) that were all branchless and lined up row after row. It would have been the ideal location for paint balling! Two to three bear watchers were assigned to walk in a wide perimeter here, as it would be very hard to spot a bear against the white tree barks. The work was completed quickly, and the October team IV had entered the record books for completing three sites in a day!
 
On the way home, Pete stopped by an archeological area that was home to some 3,000-year-old Inuit relics. Pete was able to quickly pick up off the ground the remnants of an old spear head and a flinting tool that had been left there for us to enjoy. Very cool. It looked so much like a rock, and Pete said that such relics were scattered all over the place.
 
Today was Thanksgiving in Canada, so it was turkey and pumpkin pie for dinner. Nice.
 
As we ate, the snow hit in a huge way! Howling winds and blizzard-like conditions got everyone excited. The view from the aurora dome was wild and crazy, and it sounded like the roof or parts of the study center would fly off! Tomorrow was going to be a fun day indeed.
 
Despite the fatigue of the three-site day, Texas hold-em got another run as well as other card games. Good company and good field work—you can’t go wrong.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006 The 6:45 alarm came like a call to arms. It’s getting harder to get up, as the cumulative effects of each of the days in the field start to build fatigue. But it’s just too exciting (and cold) to stay in bed.
 
Following breakfast, at which Marcus and I made a pact to eat no more bacon for the rest of the trip (and yes, it actually tastes good with maple syrup…who’d have thought?), we all got ready for the White Spruce Upland. Outside the center, there was a good foot’s worth of snow. It’s the insane winds that cause the snow drifts to build up.
 
Time to test my throwing arm…the snowball fights were on! We even played a bit of snow baseball and snow cricket as a cultural exchange. How could anyone ever get sick of this?
 
We were armed with new weather protection devices (umbrellas for the rain that was falling). The terrain was the most populated forest site to date. It was straight out of a nursery rhyme, with the snow falling and there already being a thick layer on the ground. Because I have only seen snow twice before in my life, the novelty of it had yet not worn off.
 
Survey and GPR were tough once again, but the “record-breakers” were up to it. As we wrapped up, the snow started to fall in a big way once again.
 
Because of our diligence at three sites yesterday, Pete gave us all an afternoon off after lunch. Pete had two of his master’s students arriving today, and so it was an opportunity for some of us to go into Churchill with him again.
 
About half of us took him up on the offer, and we spent the afternoon wondering the streets, though being blown about was more accurate. The blizzard had hit! We were probably the only few people on the streets at the time, walking from the Eskimo Museum (to purchase local souvenirs) to gift shops and coffee shops. It was so much fun. The wind would literally blow you down the streets as you stood still. Afterward, we found out that the winds had peaked at around 120 kilometers-per-hour (75 miles-per-hour)! I’m pretty sure that’s cyclonic.
 
Following our day in the snow in Churchill, it was off to the airport to wait for Pete’s two students to arrive. With their plane being delayed (I was surprised that they were still going to land in this weather), we had a couple of hours to burn at the airport. It was time for more of many stupid mind games to pass the time, which quite nicely frustrated and delighted (hopefully) everyone. For those who know what I’m talking about, “the coin is up, the coin is down….”
 
The two lads finally arrived. Steve and Geoff, they were, and Steve was wearing shorts and flip-flops (thongs)! We all piled in the van and back to the study center we went. The drive back was also pretty intense, with the snow falling. Dinner was kept warm for us and, as always, went down quickly.
 
After dinner, Richard, the journalist from the London Daily Telegraph who is very passionate about climate change issues, facilitated a discussion about climate change, the impacts of it, and what can be done.
 
I thought I knew most things already about the issues, having covered stuff at the university. But the severity of the timescales really hit home, and I certainly learned other bits of information, such as the impact that air travel was going to have. Projections for the UK alone see the equivalent of three new Heathrow terminals being built to cover demand.
 
It was also really refreshing to hear the perspective from people living in other countries. In Australia, we are more susceptible to the impacts, with our net evaporation rates and salinity problems. Yet it was interesting to note that in other parts of the world, like the U.S., such effects weren’t as apparent, though things like Hurricane Katrina were putting it on the agenda. Also, the impact on the American dollar was one effect that was being felt, and it highlighted that the market mechanisms of carbon trading were indeed going to be the new currency that everyone would subscribe to. The big take-home message was that a massive paradigm change, in terms of everyday people’s power usage and practices, has to start small. It was great to also have Pete there as an expert in the science, as we could get things confirmed then and there. It was slightly depressing in terms of how drastic things are going to get, but everyone’s enthusiasm certainly motivated me even more to get into the fight as soon as possible.
 
Winter had certainly hit in Churchill when looking through the aurora dome. It’s amazing how the landscape here can change so dramatically in only a few days.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006 This morning was time for something different. Steve and Geoff gave us a rundown on the work that they are doing for their master’s work on dendroclimatology (the study of plants and their relationship with climate and climate change). Steve is focused on tree coring, and Geoff (who looks exactly like a guy I went to high school with it—it freaked me out a little!) on shrub coring.
 
The guys gave us a quick tutorial on how to go about the work, and it was really interesting. Different levels of tree growth each year can be correlated with the type of climate from that year and thus can be an indicator of climate change. The work is incredibly intricate, with great care going into extracting the core, preserving it, preparing it, and then analyzing it painstakingly by counting the number of rings and measuring width (a ring being a year of growth). Some of the trees just near the study center are more than 400 years old and no thicker than my wrist. It’s quite a testament to nature and what evolution can do.
 
After the quick tutorial and practice run, we split up into smaller groups and headed off to another site filled with spruce and larch trees (sorry, can’t remember the name of the site). The coring was fun and not as easy as it looked. It was actually quite tiring on the shoulders trying to get the corer in and out of the tree. Richard, Yvonne, and I took turns. In addition, we gathered tree height data using this neat device called a clinometer, as well as tree width. We also had to identify the type of tree. Those who know me well know that I can barely distinguish between grass and weeds back home, but I can now successfully tell you which is a white spruce and which is a black spruce by looking at leaf fuzz (technical term) and bud shape. Quite the woodsman am I!
 
The site still remained a winter wonderland, and it was even more apparent at this site how quickly you could lose each other. Often we would yell to make sure we were in range of each other and to get our bearings.
 
On the way back, Pete had to get some data from one of his meteorological stations, so we stopped by a lake for some stunning group photos. Of course, it was time for another snowball fight, with the X-man and I creating a good rivalry between France and Australia, which ended in a draw…for now.
 
In the evening, Steve (who does a killer impersonation of Gopher from Winnie the Pooh...had me in stitches) finished up his talk on dendroclimatology. His results were quite neat in that there was a definite link between tree growth and air and surface temperature. There is a bit of a fallacy out there that increased temperatures can increase vegetation growth and thus better carbon removal through sinks. What people need to realize is that it is very latitude dependant. Often in the tropics and regions like Africa, increased temperature causes less growth, which is a big problem for crop growth in such regions.
 
More card games and up to the dome…still no northern lights. A great day nonetheless. Tomorrow will be our last day in the field, and I must admit it will be sad to put an end to all of this.

Thursday, October 12, 2006 Today was our final day in the field, and we had two sites to go. The first was going back to the White Spruce Upland for more coring work. Some of the group decided that we would try a less conventional way of getting to the site—by dog mushing. John, who was one of the first (and last) people to take a dog team across Antarctica and has been to both poles, was staying in a cottage right next to the center. It was too good an opportunity to miss riding with this guy. He was training a new batch of dogs for the Churchill season, as well as training new mush riders—three girls who stayed at the center for a while.
 
We wandered down to the kennel, and it was dog chaos! The animals went crazy with excitement the second they saw the leads and the sled come out, as they knew it was time for a run! Beautiful animals. Some of us (including me) were keen to help get the dogs in place, which was a lot of fun, as they were just deliriously happy to see us.
 
Two sleds were all ready to go. Frankenstein, Missin’ (so-called because he’s missin’ an ear), Sparky, Parsley, Sage, Tarragon, and the rest of the team were set. John and a mushette (I really should have remembered names) were in the other sled, and the other two mushettes (Ajhia and Sarah—how’s that for remembering names?) were driving ours. A huge build-up to take off…ready, READY, HIKE!...as John gave the command. We felt a sudden surge, but what happened next was one of the funniest things I have ever seen. The five lead dogs on our sled (each having 12 dogs) broke loose and disappeared over the horizon, with the mushettes and John in chase. Hilarious.
 
After order was restored and the dogs reattached, our sled was away. It was pretty cool. We were doing a speed that was faster than an expedition but slower than a race. I should mention that we were on a wheeled sled, as there was not enough snow to warrant a one with runners. Though not quite as authentic, it was a fun ride. Not more than 10 minutes into it, John radioed to come back, as his sled had lost a wheel! It was all happening. So, we all crammed into the one sled and set off for the final site. It was a fun way to travel, and the dogs were just fantastic.
 
We went to the White Spruce Upland for more tree and shrub coring. The afternoon session was going to be unique in that it was a new site that had yet to be tracked by any team before. We would be the first. Known as the Airport site, it was a small strip of land just near the Churchill airport. A bit of everything really—frozen fens and really high hills covered with trees and shrubs. It was all hands on deck as we did every single task— permafrost probing, GPR, surveying, and tree and shrub coring. By now, we were so efficient at it that we were able to split up into the smaller groups and knock the work off in quick time.
 
On the ride home, Pete treated us to another sighting of a monster polar bear. An area where a local keeps food out for his dogs is normally a safe bet, and we were not disappointed. Of course, this time we kept a good kilometer from the bear, and the wind made it hard to focus with binoculars. The bear was massive, and it was an exciting way to cap off our field trips.
 
With it being our last dinner, we were treated to some local foods, including caribou (which tasted a lot like kangaroo…I quite liked it), this great bread called banak, and the favorite, arctic char (a fish), which was fantastic. The evening then ended with Pete going over our gathered data and showing the comparisons between previous teams. There were indeed changes, but I need a bit more training, I think, in interpreting GPR data. Bottom line was that things were changing, in that the permafrost was getting lower.
 
Following this, we all sat around and watched slide shows of everyone’s photos, which was a great way to end the trip. Special mention has to go to our photographer man Rui (Portugal, Shell) for capturing just about everything. There were laughs and good times had by all as we recapped a memorable 10 days.
 
But wait, the night was not yet over. There was still one thing that we hadn’t seen. Could it just be possible? Up to the dome we went. The cloud cover was not that bad, so we were hopeful. We could see a few stars, but nothing else. We were just about to go when we saw what we thought was the light reflecting off the acrylic start to change shape…and move. The northern lights started to open up in front of us! It certainly was quite weak and nothing like the stunning pictures one can see, but it was them. It was just Cat, the X-man, and me who made this initial discovery, but we sent out word. Soon, the whole group was crammed in the dome. It was pretty sweet. Pete also joined us and confirmed for us that “yes, these are the northern lights.”
 
Despite my hopes, part of me wasn’t sure as to whether or not they were simply clouds. We stayed there for while watching the shapes move and dance across the sky like ghosts. You can understand now how the early Inuit people would believe this to be the dance of the gods. It was a perfect way to end our time here in Churchill.
 
Tomorrow is our final day of travels. It will indeed be sad to say farewell.

Friday, October 13, 2006 It’s the final day and time to say farewell. The majority of us all had the morning flight to Winnipeg, so it was the usual chaos that accompanies the final days of trips—running around finalizing packing, settling accounts, and throwing snowballs. A quick group photo outside the study center in our Earthwatch shirts (of which the Australia and U.S. ones were short sleeves), and we made our goodbyes to Pete and the rest of the study center team. Rui, Sylvia, and Ralph were all getting out later, so it was farewell to them as well. Always sad to say goodbye.
 
Steve and Geoff were on chauffer duty and drove the two van loads to the airport. Now, you’d think that the rest of the story would be straight forward enough for here on in, right? Oh no. There was more drama to unfold on this Friday the 13th!
 
We all got onto the plane to Churchill, and even in the strong winds (I’m kicking myself for not bringing my kite), the plane took off successfully. About an hour into the flight, our pilot announces that there is a problem with one of the wing flaps in that it was frozen at seven degrees. It was no big deal except that we had to make an emergency landing at Thompson, a small mining town in the middle of Mani (Manitoba), which means no where. Oh, and the landing was going to be somewhat bumpy because of said wing flap. It wasn’t that bad, but the pilot had the audacity to announce that it would only be a short delay.
 
A couple of hours later at Thompson airport, where hacky-sack with rocks in the car park could only get you so far, we started to realize that our connecting flights from Winnipeg were starting to look unlikely of happening. Another flight was about to leave for Winnipeg, so they triaged us into those who had the earliest flights and got us onto the next plane. This meant Monique, Eric, Inge, Cat, and I were the fortunate ones, forcing us to make hasty goodbyes to Yvonne, Marcus, and the X-man.
 
Onto Winnipeg for the rest of us, but we all had already missed our next flights. The lady at the airline desk was pretty helpful and was able to get me onto a flight to Toronto (which, after sprinting to the gate, I saw that Monique and Cat were also on). We got into Toronto around 11 p.m. and found a hotel. Nothing was open except a petrol (gas) station, with its delights of chips and cookies for dinner (how I longed for a petrol station meat pie!). Monique had an early flight, so it was farewell to her. Cat was on my flight to New York, which was cool. We finally made it through customs and onto the flight to New York. Though exhausted, my sprits lifted as we flew over “The Big Apple.” Some relaxation and sight-seeing before I headed home was the perfect tonic for a hectic day of travel.
 
So ends my travels with the Earthwatch expedition. It was indeed a memorable experience and one I won’t soon forget. I have really valued the work that I was involved with and the friendships I have made. I am glad that I now can say that I have actually measured and seen the effects of anthropogenic climate change. This experience has definitely motivated me to stop sitting on my hands and be more proactive about being a climate change advocate when I get home. The clock is ticking, folks.
 
Thanks Earthwatch, and thanks Alcoa!

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