11 Reasons Why McGill Researchers Care About the Arctic (And Why You Should, Too)

By Peter Farbridge and James Martin, with files from Michael Woloschuk

McGill University’s relationship with the North goes back for almost a century. J.J. O’Neill, former Dean of Science, was part of the 1913-1918 Canadian Arctic Expedition, an ambitious effort to map the edge of the continental shelf and conduct extensive meteorological, geological and biological research. Continuing O’Neill’s curiosity, in 1954 University researchers opened the McGill Sub-Arctic Research Station (MSARS) in Schefferville, Quebec.

Professor Bruno Tremblay pulling a sled containing equipment to measure Arctic sea ice.

Six years later, they expanded their scope even further north, establishing the McGill Arctic Research Station (MARS) on remote Axel Heiberg Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. That was just the beginning. Wayne Pollard, MARS director and a longtime polar researcher, recently oversaw extensive changes to the Axel Heiberg facilities, upgrading the science capabilities of the original station and building a second, energy-efficient station eight kilometres away. (The new McGill Arctic Research Station is part of the Canadian Space Agency’s Canadian Analog Research Network, which focuses on environments that, although earthbound, may offer special insights into space exploration and astrobiology.) McGill’s northern outpost is an ideal base from which to study such fields as permafrost hydrology and extreme environment —and its expansion reflects the recent swell of McGill researchers — across almost all faculties — who are passionate about the northern lands and its people. Martin Grant, dean of McGill’s Faculty of Science, has watched the interest in all things Arctic grow dramatically over the past five years. He sees this as a welcome sign that Canadians’ longstanding “remarkable incuriosity about the North” is finally coming to an end. “Too often, we think of Canada as this 100-mile belt around the bulging mid-section of North America,” he notes. “The plans we make for prosperity, for the education of our children, would be not much different if we moved that belt down the latitude. It’s so common to hear yet another speech about how Canada has to move from being hewers of wheat to going high tech. But that’s the same argument you could make for, let’s say, Japan or anywhere, really. I’m perfectly behind high tech — I’m a physicist — but surely an integral part of the Canadian argument should involve engagement with the North. Our argument has to be different by virtue of our natural resources.” On the following pages, a selection of McGill’s polar researchers weigh in on this most Canadian — and increasingly topical — subject.

I care about the Arctic because…

1. “ …we can’t respond to climate change the same way we did 4,000 years ago.” – André Costopoulos

During the last ice age (some 20,000 years ago), a massive glacier occupied much of the North, depressing the Earth’s crust with its incredible weight. As the glacier melted, the crust slowly rebounded (in fact, it is still rebounding), causing the sea to recede. One human lifetime could therefore see a coastline move several kilometres. “Four thousand years ago, people responded to these changes by being very mobile,” says Andre Costopoulos, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology. “If the coast moved, you moved with it.” Costopoulos has led archeological digs on the James Bay coast and in the Arctic Circle region of Finland, unearthing villages that were once home to several extended families of prehistoric hunter-gatherers. Working with professor Gail Chmura (Department of Geography), he makes paleoenvironmental reconstructions of what life was like for those people. For Costopoulos, one of the values of history is how we might use it to build better futures — and that might mean rethinking things like land tenure. “Four thousand years ago, if the sea level changed by a metre, it wasn’t a problem because people would simply move accordingly,” he says. “Today, if it changes a few centimetres, it would kill millions of people in Bangladesh, for example, because we’ve lost the mobility aspect of our adaptation. We all need to start imagining ways we can live the way we do, while restoring some of the mobility that allows us to face environmental change and adapt to it.”

2. “…an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean could be much more catastrophic than the one in the Gulf of Mexico.” – Subhasis Ghoshal

For the past five years, Subhasis Ghoshal, associate professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and Applied Mechanics, has been experimenting with how indigenous bacteria can degrade petroleum hydrocarbon compounds in contaminated soils. Ghoshal works on samples taken from a decommissioned Distant Early Warning (DEW) radar station on Resolution Island. In 1957, the Canadian and U.S. militaries opened 63 DEW stations along the 69th parallel. The stations’ purpose was to scan Northern skies for Soviet missiles but — because the stations relied on diesel fuel for everything from electricity to heat — they had the unintended side-effect of polluting soil and water. Now that the DEW line has been shut down, there’s a push for the government to transfer the land back to Northern communities but nobody, sensibly, wants to live on land that might be toxic. Ghoshal works with bacteria that essentially “eats” the residual diesel fuel, turning it into carbon dioxide, water and more bacteria.

3. “ …I love wildlife.”–Murray Humphries, associate professor in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences and NSERC Northern Research Chair. Humphries studies the links between environment, wildlife and people. “When a northern hunter harvests a caribou in the midst of a 1,000-kilometre migration,” he says, “I want to know where the caribou came from, and where it was going.” Humphries’ current projects include studying the size and structure of the narwhal population around Baffin Island.

He isn’t the first to exploit the petrol-eating properties of bacteria, but he is breaking new ground by fine-tuning the process for cold climates. Using a CFI-funded cold room facility in McGill’s Benedek Integrated Laboratories in Environmental Engineering, he is able to program test temperatures to match the daily average of Resolution Island. “We’re learning that temperature is a very sensitive factor that has to be taken into consideration,” he says. The bacteria function pretty much the same at 20 as at 22 degrees Celsius, but the same two-degree drop from eight to six degrees Celsius makes a huge difference. In collaboration with Lyle Whyte, associate professor in McGill’s Department of Natural Resource Sciences, Ghoshal has found that boosting the nitrogen and phosphorus content of the soil results in a huge increase in microbial biodegradative activity. (Arctic soils are naturally low in those nutrients; the dearth of trees means there’s little biological matter decaying in the soils.) In fact, he’s found that, at the end of the short Arctic summer, you can load up the soil with a winter’s worth of nutrients and see a 25 per cent increase in biodegradation over the next 10 months: “You can walk away from the site for the winter and things will have improved when you come back.” Beyond cleaning up leftover contamination, the technology could be applied in the unfortunate case of a large-scale spill—an unpleasant subject that can’t be avoided in the face of increased northern oil exploration: “We need to build the capacity to contain and deal with spills.”

4. “…the Inuit are Canadian citizens.” – George Wenzel

George Wenzel has made yearly visits to the Baffin Island community of Clyde River since 1971—and his wall-sized collage of photos of his Inuit friends is testament to his deep connection with the people of the North. Wenzel is a professor in McGill’s Department of Geography. He’s dedicated his career as a cultural geographer to studying the economics of hunting, and how Inuit traditional institutions facilitate the flow of money from the hands of those who produce it to those who need it. Over the years, he’s seen how hunting has been affected by climate change, sometimes for the better (a shorter sea ice season means hunting boats can be used for a longer period), sometimes for the worse (increased frequency and intensity of storms). But he sees the Inuit as “problem solvers and incredibly pragmatic—assuming that the change is constant, the Inuit will adapt to it, just as they’ve done for a long time.” Wenzel’s concerns about the Inuit’s future lie more in the economic realm. In communities that have a 30 to 35 per cent unemployment rate, money is a scarce commodity.

“I consider environment to encompass a wide variety of things, including government,” he says. “Jobs are handed down from Ottawa to the regional centres to the outlying communities, and the pie gets smaller and smaller the further you go. This raises real issues, because hunting is impossible without a flow of money — it’s expensive to hunt because of the equipment costs. Yet there is a reason for that equipment. I know that in Clyde River, for instance, it will take a dog team three hours to get to the seal hunting grounds — a trip that would take a snowmobile only one hour. So you can go out, capture a seal and bring it back and share it, in a much more efficient way.”

Wenzel has on occasion advised government agencies and Inuit organizations. He sees his research as having “potentially serious implications” for policies ranging from food security and hunter support to the consequences of promoting a wage economy over the traditional Inuit “sharing” system. “Something that might seem remote — like the European Parliament deciding whether sealskins should be sold in Europe — can have a large impact on the lives of the Inuit,” he says. “Living in the North comes at a cost and that cost has spiralled.”

5. “ …what happens in the Arctic is a warning sign for the rest of the planet. It may be too late for the Arctic perennial sea ice, but not too late for other regions.” –Bruno Tremblay

An avid sportsman, Bruno Tremblay is cut out for the kind of fieldwork his job entails — setting up research camps beside icelocked research ships on the Beaufort Sea, hopping out of helicopters to set sonar buoys in the ice in Resolute Bay. “Some people feel anxious and out of place in the North. I feel an extreme calmness.”

6. “…an increasing number of northern people are at high risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes” – Grace Egeland, researcher in the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment, based in the School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition at McGill’s Macdonald campus. Egeland is also the Canada Research Chair for Environment, Nutrition and Health. In 2007 and 2008, as an International Polar Year project, Egeland used a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker to conduct an extensive health survey of 36 Inuit communities along the Nunavut, Northwest Territories and northern Labrador coasts. The study was an expansion of a similar one conducted by Eric Dewailly of Universite Laval in 2004. The results of the 2007-2008 survey, titled Qanuqitpit? Qanuippitali? Kanuivit? (which translates as “How about us? How are we?” in three Inuktitut dialects), was released in May 2010.

From his core research into the melting icecap to a Russian study on Eurasian permafrost and an investigation into algae living in sea ice, professor Tremblay (Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences) has his fingers in just about everything Arctic.

In 2006 Tremblay became something of a celebrity when he cowrote a report that demonstrated the projected loss of Arctic sea ice around 2040. It predicted a steady rate of decline followed by a sharp plunge until the only ice remaining in the summer would be around the north coast of Greenland and Canada. It was a much publicized study that helped sensitize the public to the urgency of sea ice loss.

Then 2007 happened. That summer, the Arctic sea ice coverage plummeted to its lowest level in recorded history. Even Tremblay was shocked. “When I saw what happened that year, I realized that our model was a little conservative. The physics we can trust, but the time frame we can’t.” The Arctic summer ice has made gains in the past three years, but it would appear to be cosmetic: the thickness of the ice continues to decline. Tremblay’s work continues. “Climate-change skeptics complain that our models could be inaccurate about the rapid speed of change. The year 2007 is a good example that models may be wrong, but they may be wrong in both directions.”

7. “ …saving Arctic ecosystems could tip the balance of the global climate change.” – Jeff McKenzie

“Much to my family’s chagrin,” jokes Jeff McKenzie, “my work involves research at high altitudes and northern regions.” An affable young assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, he’s spent the better part of the last decade looking at how to simulate the movement of water and heat in the permafrost and peatlands of Northern regions. Fortunately though, for his family, McKenzie’s more of a self-described “virtual” explorer. “Computer models are good at helping us understand systems that we can’t easily measure. It’s difficult to do this kind of work in the Arctic. It’s cold, for sure, and getting equipment there is very costly.”

McKenzie’s currently working on a model that might forever change the way you look at a frozen peat bog. The model, called SUTRA 3.0, is a revision of an existing model called SUTRA (Saturated-Unsaturated TRAnsport). In a simple visual interface, the computer algorithm describes the movement of water and heat in the ground, with an added twist: “The new model does the same thing as the previous, but includes freezing as well,” McKenzie explains. “No one’s really thought about these processes in this way before. In some sense, it feels like exploration…”

8. “…the Inuit livelihood is dependent on the environment. This makes them the most vulnerable to climate change.” – James Ford, geography professor. His work reveals how climate change affects Inuit food security (physical, social and dietary), as well as its impact on cultural resilience, hunting, traditions and health in a Nunavut community.

McKenzie’s model may prove useful to untangle one particular mystery in the North: the case of the disappearing lakes. For the past 30 years, the thousands of lakes that dot maps of northern regions have been slowly draining away. In a study concluded in 2005 by a team in the US, a region of a half million hectares in Siberia lost 11 per cent of its lakes and 6 per cent of its water surface area for a total loss of 125 lakes.

One of the possible culprits that McKenzie is studying is holes in the permafrost called “taliks.” “What we think might be happening,” says McKenzie, “is that the water in lakes acts as an insulator, and as the floor of the lake warms up, it thaws the permafrost and the water drains out.” The thawing line of permafrost continues to be pushed further north as the climate warms up. So the prognosis for Northern lakes does not look good. The loss of surface water may have a large impact on the total ecosystem. The same U.S. study in Siberia warns of increased fires, loss of bird habitats and changes to atmospheric systems. “There is a chicken-or-egg kind of question that we hope our model can help answer,” says McKenzie. “Are the lakes disappearing as a result of the lakes warming, or is it permafrost thinning and thawing? If we can answer that, we will hopefully be able to better predict and understand why these lakes are disappearing, and what the impact of this loss will be on Arctic hydrology.”

9. “ …thawing permafrost might release a vast amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and oceans.” – Wayne Pollard

Wayne Pollard has been working in the Arctic for 35 years, first as an geology undergraduate prospecting for gold during the summer and now as director of McGill’s Arctic and sub-Arctic research stations. The geography professor is deeply connected to the Arctic both as a proud Canadian and a scientist. “The Arctic represents the ‘true north strong and free,’ ” he says, “and it’s also the most vulnerable environment on Earth.” His research focuses on landscape dynamics related to permafrost and ground ice, and he typically spends three or four months of the year in polar locations, including extended winter stays: “To fully understand systems dominated by cold temperatures one should observe them under their dominant condition.” His work has contributed to a better understanding of various cryological and cryohydrological phenomena related to permafrost, ground ice and cold saline groundwater discharge. By studying permafrost and modeling how climate change might change it, he hopes to answer three big questions: How much will the landscape change, how much methane and carbon dioxide (two of the primary greenhouse gases) is trapped in frozen organic materials — and, as increased thaw releases more and more of that carbon, how will the ecosystem change?

“When it comes to the Arctic, most people think about the vulnerability of Inuit culture or wildlife to climate change,” he says, “but the greatest threat is probably to terrestrial and marine systems dominated by permafrost and ice. As a physical geologist and geomorphologist, I am concerned about the permanent changes to the land surface and the processes that affect it. Everything else is more adaptive: polar bears will move further north, Inuit will change their lifestyle. The land does not adapt, it just responds.”

10. “ …it is underexplored wilderness in which many new geologic discoveries remain to be found.” – Don Francis

Few scientists have a closer relationship to the Arctic region than Don Francis, professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Amundsen, Franklin, Peary — the stories of the early explorers transfixed him as a small boy, and he shaped his career to spend as much time north of 60 as possible. “I think what fascinates me about the North is being alone,” Francis says. “It can be dangerous at times, but it’s very rare in life that you can get back to simple wants and needs.”

11. “ …in the past 20 years, it has changed tremendously in almost every way.” – Marianne Stenbaek, professor in the Department of English. Stenbaek has worked with the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) to update its Inuit Arctic Policy to reflect the northern people’s current ideas and concerns about sovereignty, resource development, climate change, education and other topics. The ICC represents Inuit people across Alaska, Nunavut, Chukotka (Russia) and Greenland.

Francis is full of stories, from how to protect yourself from polar bears with moth balls to dodging ice floes. But it was through expeditions to Porpoise Cove, Ungava, that Francis became part of a story that, from a geological perspective, is much more exciting than a bear attack. A research team — Francis, McGill PhD Jonathan O’Neil, Richard W. Carlson from the Carnegie Institution for Science and Ross K. Stevenson of Universite du Quebec a Montreal — was hoping to collect data on 3.8-billion-year-old rocks in the Nuvvuagittuq greenstone, but “ended up finding rocks that are 4.3 billion years old, only 300 million years younger than the formation of the planet.”

The samples are, in fact, the oldest rocks ever found on the Earth — and contain invaluable insights into the planet’s infancy. The chemical make-up of ancient rocks helps geologists reconstruct how the Earth was formed and evolved. “The Nuvvuagittuq greenstone belt has a banded iron and silica formation typical of those found at deep sea hydrothermal vents,” notes Francis, which not only indicates that the Earth had oceans at this early stage, but lends considerable weight to the theory that deep sea vents were home to the planet’s earliest life forms.

The research initiatives on the following pages are funded by a variety of sources, including: ArcticNet, Canada Foundation for Innovation, Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the Canadian Polar Continental Shelf Program, Canada Research Chairs, Canadian Space Agency, Community- University Research Alliances, European Science Foundation BOREAS program, Finnish Academy, Fonds de recherche sur la nature et les technologies, Fonds de recherche sur la société et la culture, Government of Nunavut, Health Canada, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Nasivvik Centre for Inuit Health, National Science Foundation (U.S.), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.