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Thursday, 25 September 2008 21:19
McGill University students study Canada's permafrostWritten by Guest Contributor
Massive ground ice body on Herschel Island
At the start of the fourth International Polar Year in March 2007, Professor Wayne Pollard of McGill University’s Geography Department, a permafrost scientist involved in seven different IPY projects, and his PhD student, Nicole Couture, were discussing ways to improve permafrost education for students at McGill University. Even though half of Canada is underlain by permafrost, students rarely get to see what is currently at stake in northern environments. As a result, they decided to set up a program that would allow students to participate in a major scientific expedition and also be in charge of one specific aspect of the research project. One year and a challenging application process later, four undergraduate students (Michael Angelopoulos, Nicholas Arkell, Alison Cassidy and Heather Cray) found themselves with their “visa” to the north. In August 2008, they travelled from Montréal to Inuvik, Northwest Territories, and then to Herschel Island, Yukon Territory to investigate the physical geography and the impacts of climate change on permafrost.
Coring lake sediments on Herschel Island
Each student specialized in one topic: ground-penetrating radar surveys of ground ice, GPS mapping, biogeography, and the stratigraphy of retrogressive thaw slumps. Professor Pollard and Nicole Couture supervised the research. Nicole is currently examining carbon and sediment fluxes from eroding permafrost coasts along the Beaufort Sea for her doctoral thesis. The research team also included Dr. Hugues Lantuit, a high-octane geomorphologist from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Potsdam, Germany. Michael Fritz, a PhD student from the same institution, also joined us. The project was made possible by the support of the Polar Continental Shelf Project (PCSP), ArcticNet, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), and the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS).
From left to right: Alison Cassidy, Heather Cray, Nicole Couture, Hugues Lantuit, Nicholas Arkell, Michael Angelopoulos and Michael Fritz
Here’s a scoop on the McGill undergrads and their projects!
Working in a pristine and invigorating periglacial environment like Herschel Island is a wonderful opportunity for young researchers to practice science, explore Canada’s heritage, and spiritually bond with the Arctic’s natural wonders. In August 2008, I was privileged to join students and members of staff from McGill University to conduct research at Yukon’s northernmost point. The first goal of my project is to study permafrost and map the extent of ground ice using ground-penetrating radar at retrogressive thaw slumps, Collinson Head and Thetis Bay sites in particular. My work consists of radar stratigraphy and 3D modeling of subsurface features. The ultimate objective is to predict further headwall retreat by linking collected data to climatic parameters. Although mental endurance is required in most scientific endeavours, physical stamina is also essential to successfully overcome the challenging conditions of the island. Most days consisted of fierce winds, drizzle, and temperatures slightly above freezing, but science is just more fun that way! Apart from the research, I enjoyed playing cards with the rangers, walking under the midnight sun, and trying to swim in the Beaufort Sea. It was truly a valuable and stimulating experience.
This summer, I worked for Professor Wayne Pollard of McGill University under an NSERC grant to build a Geographic Information System (GIS) of Herschel Island. A main component of this project was to compile annual GPS surveys of certain retrogressive thaw slumps on the island. When analyzed in a comprehensive GIS, including various cultural and physical elements, one observes a substantial retreat in the headwalls of the slumps. In terms of my own fieldwork, I worked with a Trimble 4700 differential GPS unit to map the slump outlines as of August 2008, taking continuous kinematic points as close as possible to the edge of the slump. It was also interesting to map Simpson Point, the spit on which all of Herschel’s historic buildings rest. This spit changes dramatically, and part of my initiative included taking elevation points around the archaeological sites for the sake of the Yukon Heritage Branch. Despite the weather, the tundra was truly beautiful. An experience worth repeating!
The retrogressive thaw slumps along the coast of Herschel Island allow for non-intrusive stratigraphic analysis of ground ice. In this unique setting, I systematically analysed cryostratrigraphy to access the nature and origin of the ice, and to determine the thaw susceptibility of permafrost in the framework of global environmental change. This project was a great opportunity, especially for an undergrad, to collaborate with an international team of scientists.
This summer, I was given the opportunity to travel to Herschel Island to conduct research on vegetation. Specifically, I looked at the different vegetation surrounding retrogressive thaw slumps. I looked at two slumps in particular, Collinson Head and Thetis Bay. At each location, I separated the vegetation into different classes ranging from that found in the slump floor, to the stabilized zones surrounding the slump, and finally the undisturbed areas at a distance from the slumps. The overall aim of my project is to determine successional patterns in different stabilized areas and analyze vegetation to identify patterns. I collected plant samples from each slump and plan to build a herbarium of species found in the slumps for Herschel Island. There were many memorable moments in the field, identifying plants while applying IPY tattoos with other students being a prime example. I thoroughly enjoyed my time on Herschel and hope to return in the future!
Retrogressive thaw slump on Herschel Island
Text compiled by Hugues Lantuit
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