I went to the Arctic for my summer vacation.
To be specific, I volunteered* with the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) and joined a team of CWS scientists in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories to study shorebirds as part of the Arctic Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring (Arctic PRISM). I was a volunteer, but I am also a trained shorebird ecologist turned university administrator, so for me the trip was part adventure, part scientific data collection, and part blissful 3-week escape from email. Oh, and I really loved the flying in a helicopter part. I was in the air for 20 or the 21 days I was away!
But fun and adventure aside, it was an auspicious time for a trip to the Arctic.
Only days before I left, the True and Reconciliation Commission released its summary report. I am not a social scientist; I have only average knowledge about the plight of aboriginal peoples in Canada, yet the opportunity to visit the Northern communities of Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet, Baker Lake and Yellowknife, so soon after the report was released, left a lasting impression.
Then, upon my return, my children and I attended the March for Jobs, Justice and Climate Action. It was inspiring; and it brought together a coalition of diverse groups working towards common goals – First Nations, labour unions, students, activists, cyclists, and people like me with young kids who want to make a difference.
My family joined a small group of people working together to commit 15 min acts of climate action each month. Started by a professor Dan Dolderman and his kids (check out his incredible TEDX talk), the group’s metaphor is an Unstoppable Snowball, something that starts small, but gains momentum as it grows.
So, did I see evidence of climate change on my trip?
I was last in the Arctic in June 2002. On that visit, I arrived to a frozen Nunavik (Arctic Quebec). There was still at least a meter of snow on the ground, so much snow that the plane couldn’t land and we had to snowmobile to our camp. The birds had barely arrived and were hunkered down in the snow. This year, we arrived about a week later by the calendar, and on the western rather than the eastern shore of Hudson Bay. There was very little snow left and the birds were already starting to nest. Was this climate change? It would be pretty unscientific to say so. For one thing I was in a different part of the Arctic, for another, I had arrived later in the year. I would have needed to visit the same site and to look at it in the same way over time.
This is exactly what the PRISM project is doing. Scientists are systematically surveying random sites within a series of set regions across Alaska and Canada and returning to those sites at set intervals to track the health of shorebird populations. This summer alone, we collected data on 57 plots in the Kivalliq region of Arctic Canada, while a second team performed intensive surveys on a plot in Polar Bear Pass. For those who are interested there is already a monograph on the past 10 years of work.
Putting the scientist in me aside, it was hard to visit the Arctic without seeing things that, at least anecdotally, reminded me of climate change. In Iqaluit smelly gas bubbles leaked up through the thawing tundra. (This is not necessarily new, but it reminded me of much larger methane bubbles and even craters in Siberia). In Yellowknife, I was greeted by a red and hazy sky, evidence of wildfires fuelled by heat and drought in Saskatchewan and across western Canada.
For the most part though, I was lucky to see an Arctic still outwardly unmarred by climate change. Indeed, for three weeks I saw a land of immense beauty – both in its landscapes and in its people.
A land that humbled me with its vastness.
A land of snowmobiles and living skies.
A land of abundant wildlife.
An immense, wild and (often) frozen place that I would hate to lose to climate change.
I plan to write more about this 2015 trip to the Arctic and to share more of the hundreds of pictures I took. If any of you would like a guest post/article around the shorebird work, the Arctic tundra, or the communities I visited, let me know and I will be happy to oblige J.
* The views expressed in this, or any other, article written about my experience, are mine alone. I am not an employee of the Canadian Wildlife Service, though I thank them for inviting me on this incredible journey.