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Kathy Young leads fellow scientists on an Arctic adventure

Kathy Young leads fellow scientists on an Arctic adventure

On Aug. 12, Kathy Young led 69 Arctic hydrologists, oceanographers and observers from every circumpolar nation on an expedition to Baffin Island. As chief delegate of the invitation-only 17th International Northern Research Basins Symposium & Workshop, the Arctic hydrologist and York geography professor had been planning this seven-day conference for two years. Veteran scientists, their graduate students and a few observers assembled at Trudeau Airport in Montreal, flew to Iqaluit, Nunavut, then boarded the Lyubov Orlova, a Russian ship chartered by Cruise North Expeditions Inc. to give the group a tour of the Eastern Arctic while hosting its biennial conference. York communications officer Martha Tancock and professional photographer Robert McKenna documented the trip. In the first of two instalments, read and see images of their arrival in Iqaluit, the first iceberg sightings, an excursion to historic Kekerten whaling station and a meeting with Pangnirtung, Nunavut, elders about climate change.

Day 1 – Arrival in Iqaluit
Wednesday, Aug. 12

Montreal was so hot and humid the morning of our departure, that it was hard to imagine that in less than three hours, First Air would jet us into overcast, misty weather almost 20 degrees cooler. As the First Air jet lifted off from Trudeau Airport and climbed to 31,000 feet, we left behind a suburban landscape dotted with turquoise pools and flew up the middle of Quebec following sandy oxbow rivers into a roadless, lake-studded green and grey expanse of Canadian Shield.

Not long after sampling Arctic char, we landed in Iqaluit, “place of many fish” and capital of Nunavut. The modular airport tower was a beacon of orange against a grey sky. Two school buses took us to the local museum where Earle Baddaloo, Nunavut’s assistant deputy minister of environment, welcomed us and urged us to taste muskox burgers and visit the “very striking and very northern” Legislative Assembly, which we did. Top of his mind was the European Union’s decision to ban seal. The people of Nunavut “are not going to sit back and sulk” but will search for alternative markets, he insisted. Also greeting us was Mary Ellen Thomas, executive director of the Nunavut Research Institute, which supports 150 social, natural and health science research projects in the north.

After CBC North interviewed York geography Professor Kathy Young about the conference, we toured Nunavut's Legislative Assembly, an airy igloo-shaped chamber built of British Columbia pine and decorated with Inuit prints, weaving and carvings, including a mace fashioned from a narwhal tusk. Our tour guide was Seané d’Argencourt (right), the first page from Nunavut to serve in Canada’s House of Commons.

The bumpy ride to the harbour took us past the dump, stacks of crushed cars and mounds of used tires ­– a sight common to communities perched on impenetrable permafrost. At the water, we pulled on raincoats for our first spurt in inflated rubber Zodiacs to the waiting Lyubov Orlova. The ship is named after the Marilyn Monroe of the early Russian screen. Lyubov is Russian for “love” so we were sailing on the love boat out of Frobisher Bay.

Day 2 – Icebergs
Thursday, Aug. 13

At 7:05am, the voice of Cruise North expedition leader Jason crackled across public announcement speakers in each cabin. He listed longitude and latitude coordinates, temperature and weather conditions. Breakfast would be served at 7:30. To port, he added, you will see icebergs. Sure enough, through my porthole I spotted a compact blue-veined berg, then another. Many of us clamoured on deck for a better view.

Conference delegates gathered for a packed agenda of presentations in the forward lounge. Mid-morning, while they heard about snow modelling and the challenges involved in measuring snow cover, depth and density, I visited the ship's bridge. Here taciturn Russian naval officers monitored radar, compasses and other wayfinding instruments to navigate safely through treacherous northern waters. After a while, one pointed over the bow. “Izeboorg,” he said. Through impenetrable fog, a faint grey horizontal line slowly emerged, then defining edges and finally the entire monster. Despite being the size of Toronto's downtown core, it moved with enough speed to create a headwind that blew the snow off its saddleback.

Stealthy and fast, it was easy to imagine how it could take a captain by surprise in the middle of the north Atlantic at night. In fact, one delegate guessed it had calved from the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland, the same one that spawned the iceberg that sunk the Titanic.

Meanwhile, the conference turned its focus on the effect of earlier ice breakups and later freeze-ups on Arctic lakes and rivers. The day was capped with a keynote talk by Robie Macdonald, research scientist at Fisheries & Oceans Canada's Institute of Ocean Sciences. Internationally recognized for his work on contaminant transport in oceans, he contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former US vice-president Al Gore. Macdonald was invited to this conference to share an oceanographer’s perspective – a major goal of the conference – of what happens when freshwater runoff from land and melting sea ice interact with currents in the Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic oceans. Will the Arctic Sea become a seasonably open ocean? Yes. By 2013? He's not sure. (Read more in his International Polar Year essay.)

Day 3 – Bones to see and to pick
Friday, Aug. 14

In the Arctic we must be flexible, say our Cruise North hosts. An unexpected detour overnight meant the 5am trek to the Kekerten Island whaling station would be postponed to 11am. Without missing a beat, hydrologists and oceanographers gave scheduled talks on the rapid rate of sea-ice shrinkage, tracing the route of fresh meltwater from Greenland into the north Atlantic and changes in ice cover in the Baltic Sea.

At 10:30am, we donned rain gear and rubber boots, packed hiking boots and cameras, for an excursion to Kekerten, an abandoned whaling station. Before we could land, guides armed with rifles scouted the area for polar bears. All clear, we scurried ashore and followed boardwalks to historical plaques and skeletal remains of all sorts – a building, rusty vats, a whale’s giant skull and 100-year-old human bones scattered around their weathered wooden coffins. Off the beaten path, we bounced like moonwalkers across spongy tundra – a blanket of green moss, white and yellow lichen, and fluffy, white cotton grass – and climbed craggy rocks coated in the black tripe de roche lichen that ill-fated 19th-century British explorer John Franklin's starving men ate and crawling with the witchy fingers of Arctic willow, to get a better view of a calm, misty Cumberland Sound.  

Later, we visited Pangnirtung for a meeting between scientists and village elders, an anticipated highlight of the trip. In June 2008, the village declared a state of emergency after a flash flood knocked out two bridges and carved a channel through permafrost down to the bedrock. Through a translator, nine elders talked about this and other local signs of climate change – glaciers disappearing in Cumberland Sound, high tides, moss washing into the sea. Scientists said permafrost is melting, glaciers are shrinking, sea ice is disappearing, water levels are rising, winds are changing and rivers are flooding around the circumpolar North. Both elders and scientists shared the opinion that we must all adapt to climate change.

Back on board Lyubov Orlova, the crew briefed us about the next day’s excursion – a hike to Auyuittuq National Park in the stunning Pangnirtung Fiord (right). Read about it in YFile's next issue.