fbpx Northern exposure: Studying at the Arctic's edge | Phillips Exeter Academy

Northern exposure: Studying at the Arctic's edge

Exeter Science Instructor Kadeine Peterson digs into the impact of climate change along Hudson Bay.

August 20, 2019
Kadeine Peterson (left), an instructor of science at Phillips Exeter Academy, paddles in Hudson Bay.

Kadeine Peterson (left), an instructor of science, spent two weeks studying permafrost in Churchill, Manitoba.

When your summer includes serenading beluga whales with Beyonce songs and keeping a watchful eye for frisky polar bears, you’ve had a full break. So it was for Kadeine Peterson, an instructor in science who spent two weeks along Canada’s Arctic edge, studying the impact of climate change. Peterson’s research opportunity came as part of a TeachEarth Fellowship from the Earthwatch Institute, which helps science teachers from across the country to step outside the classroom and into the worlds they teach. Peterson joined eight other instructors in Churchill, Manitoba, in late June for a valuable learning experience. Here's her account:

 

For two weeks, my team and I did an ecological survey of 21 ephemeral ponds in the subarctic fen, specifically looking for the existence of wood and boreal chorus frogs, stickleback fish and predaceous diving beetle larvae. Hypothetically, the presence or absence of these model organisms could be used as a gauge for the effect of climate change on sub-Arctic and Arctic regions, as the ponds they live in disappear along with the shrinking permafrost layer.

Research days began by donning surprisingly comfortable brown waist waders with rubber boots duct-taped closed (so as not to be taken by the boggy landscape), at least two layers of warm clothing beneath, a hat, neoprene gloves and fly net to keep the many mosquitoes and black flies at bay, all topped off with a wind and waterproof jacket for the inevitable afternoon gales. My team and I were transported, along with our gear, to a new pond or two each day, where we divided five different field tasks amongst ourselves, the results of which were to be analyzed back at the lab in the evenings. We cherished this time not only for research, but also because it signaled our only time outdoors with a bear guard in attendance always. We had strict instructions to never leave the research center, given the very real threat of polar bears who were coming off the sea-ice in preparation for the mating season.

Before embarking on this trip, I had some familiarity with the world of research, given my background studying as a geneticist; the only TeachEarth participant on the trip with this claim. However, there is a striking difference between pipetting DNA samples in the relative comfort of a climate-controlled laboratory and wading through murky ponds looking for the slimy and many-legged things that live there, all while hoping to not fall through to the permafrost layer hidden below.

 

Perhaps it was because we were all teachers that the long days in the hummocky fen were filled with eager questions, interesting observations and a general excitement about how we could incorporate every little thing we were experiencing into lesson plans for our students who ranged from third grade to high school. These conversations carried over to nightly lectures on a variety of topics, from geomatics to a full briefing on current climate data as well as TeachEarth action plan brainstorming sessions led by Katrina Roddenberry, a former recipient of a TeachEarth fellowship turned lead expedition teacher.

It was not all work during my time in Churchill. Our expedition coincided with Canada Day (July 1) and four teachers, including myself, decided to participate as a team in the annual Hudson Bay Dip.As a reminder, Churchill is located in the sub-Arctic, which meant that the ambient temperature at the coast that day was around 35℉ and the water still had bits of floe in it. Nevertheless, we all took our turn running into the freezing water, swimming to the designated point and hoping we’d get back to shore before our minds caught up to how cold our bodies knew the water was.

On another occasion, I had the once-in-a lifetime opportunity to kayak with a pod of beluga whales. Churchill is the place to go to see these magnificent cetaceans, which sort of resemble manatees in one instance and their related dolphin cousins in the next. Hudson Bay is home to about 57,000 belugas which, lucky for us, migrate down the Churchill region from mid-June to mid-September when the sea-ice melts. We were told that the social whales responded well to high-pitched noises, laughing and singing. So, never one to disappoint an audience, I belted a score of Disney and Beyoncé songs while I navigated my kayak through the water. Based on the many belugas that came my way, bobbing their bulbous heads out of the water, I can definitively say that these arctic whales love Beyoncé; I’ve since renamed them Bey-lugas.

Though the belugas and the polar dip are memories I am likely never to forget, what affected me most from my time in the town of Churchill was my interactions with its people. Churchill — reachable only by train or plane; there are no roads in — has a population consisting mostly of indigenous peoples of the First Nation Dené tribe. Their influence was everywhere, including as one of the languages (Inuktitut) in which the flight safety video was given. It was great to be able to experience such a different culture to my own and honor the differences while embracing the similarities.

I left Churchill via a route that would take me farther north into Nunavut, the farthest latitudinally I have ever been on this planet. Here, the permafrost is so thick that no trees exist. The landscape is a continuous lumpy sheet, interrupted now and again by large swatches of snow and ice. As a scientist, I was intrigued by this place; what sorts of animals live here? Are there plants? Needless to say, the questions I left Churchill with are just as filling as the knowledge I’ve gained during my time there. Having completed a TeachEarth fellowship, I am now eligible to lead an expedition, for both teachers or students, and plan to follow through on that in my time at PEA.       

If you would like to read more about the expedition, please access the blog at: teacheartharctic.weebly.com