Pursuing an Arctic research dream

Winter School in Norway broadens PhD student’s perspective on her research into floating sea ice and ocean currents

Imagine a place where there are as many polar bears as people and reindeer roam the streets like squirrels in Montreal. Welcome to Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago barely 1,000 kilometres from the North Pole. Now imagine you get to go there as part of your studies at McGill.

Meet Lizz Webb, a PhD student in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, who spent a week in Svalbard this year, taking part in the Winter School on Atmosphere-Ocean-Sea Ice Interaction Processes. Webb’s research focuses on the effect of floating sea ice on major ocean currents that drive global weather systems. She says the Winter School, organized by the Norwegian Research School on Changing Climates in the Coupled Earth System (CHESS), was a perfect fit for her research interests and a unique opportunity to gain exposure to a wealth of interdisciplinary perspectives in an extraordinary part of the world.

“I’m always at a computer, I’m always in an office, I’m never in the Arctic,” Webb says. “It opened my mind so much to actually get to see the research area, rather than just on the screen.”

Beware of polar bears

Taking “one of the shorter routes” to Svalbard – via Reykjavik and Oslo – Webb’s travel time from Toronto clocked in at around 32 hours door to door. But once she touched down at Longyearbyen airport, it was only moments before she made her first sighting of the region’s iconic wildlife.

“They had a stuffed polar bear in the centre of the luggage carousel, and I was like, ‘Yes! I saw a polar bear – fantastic!’” she says with a wry smile.

Outside Longyearbyen, the largest settlement on Svalbard, the risk of encountering the real thing is so high that no one ventures far beyond town without a rifle or other means to scare off a hungry bear.

McGill doctoral student Lizz Webb approaching a reindeer in Longyearbyen
Reindeer are a common sight in Longyearbyen, Svalbard.Bimochan Niraula

Predicting a tipping point

Webb’s research combines her background in applied mathematics with a lifelong love of the water. Her doctoral project focuses on the Beaufort Gyre, a large circular current system that has been trapping an unusually large amount of fresh water from melting sea ice and runoff in an area of ocean bounded by Canada, Alaska and Russia.

“The Beaufort Gyre usually reverses direction every five to seven years,” Webb explains. “But it has been over 20 years now since the last time this happened.

“The gyre currently holds more fresh water than all the Great Lakes combined. If it were to release just 5 percent of this, it would lead to an event similar to something that happened in the 70s called the Great Salinity Anomaly, which led to severe winters in Northern Europe and had an impact on fisheries and the salinity of the oceans around the world.”

Climate change is likely to be contributing to the Beaufort Gyre’s greater-than-usual accumulation of fresh water. Increased melting of sea ice due to warmer temperatures is one factor, but scientists suspect the melting of land-based ice may also be interfering with ocean currents.

“There have been hypotheses that the gyre has not reversed due to the huge amount of fresh water melting off the Greenland ice sheet,” Webb explains. “It is believed that the increased fresh water running into the northern Atlantic Ocean has turned off a mechanism that is responsible for reversing the Beaufort Gyre.”

Webb’s work forms part of a broader scientific effort to better understand the mechanisms that might eventually cause the gyre to change direction and release fresh water on a massive scale. Her research zooms in on the role of floating sea ice and the drag it exerts on the gyre – a piece in the puzzle that has started to gain attention among other factors affecting the flow of fresh water into and out of the system.

“Previous research has looked at the surface, whether it was just a cap of ice or ocean exposed to the atmosphere,” Webb says. “I’m trying to work in floating sea ice, which is acting within the water column, floating and partially submerged in the water.”

Ice floating in the sea
Lizz Webb’s research focuses on the effect of floating ice on ocean currents.

Valuable exposure to interdisciplinary perspectives

Webb was one of a select group of 31 Ph.D. students from across Europe and North America who attended the Svalbard Winter School this year. The week-long academic conference was an opportunity to work with leaders in the field. With a schedule that included eight hours of lectures a day and opportunities for the students to present their own projects through poster sessions, Webb says the experience was an excellent reminder of the importance of taking an interdisciplinary approach to the complex system she is investigating.

“People that are ordinarily hard to get in contact with were there, and you were able to get feedback on your research project from all of the different perspectives on the Arctic,” she says.

“In academia, it’s so easy to hyper-focus on what you’re comfortable with. The School really reminded me of how important it is to try to work in other aspects.”

Support from McGill

Webb pays tribute to her supervisors, Bruno Tremblay and David Straub, for encouraging her to apply for the Winter School. A fellow doctoral student in Tremblay’s research group, Noémie Planat, was also among the successful applicants.

Around half of Webb’s expenses for the trip were covered by a Science Education Conference Award (SECA), a Faculty of Science initiative that encourages faculty, students and staff to exchange knowledge with their peers through academic conferences. The SECAs are just one example of support available to members of the McGill community to pursue academic opportunities in Canada and abroad. For graduate students in particular, funding to pursue international opportunities is also available through the Graduate Mobility Award (GMA).

Visit McGill’s Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies website for information on the GMA and a range of other opportunities.

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