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What Climate Change Looks Like From the Arctic's Edge

For decades, the Churchill Northern Studies Centre has been on the front lines of climate-related science and public education in Canada’s north.

by Whitney Light
Sep 18 2015, 11:00am

Kenneth Mills sets a net over the nest of a semipalmated plover, hoping to attract the adult male plover. Image: Whitney Light

On a wet, cool day this past July, while mosquitoes swarmed his hands and face, field technician Kenneth Mills squatted on the gravel shore of Hudson Bay. He patiently closed a plastic band around the leg of a young shorebird—a semipalmated plover—while a research partner armed with a rifle and binoculars stood on lookout for polar bears.

The pair banded 67 birds over 68 days, a small but essential part of data collection that's been conducted annually near Churchill, Manitoba, since 1992—one of the longest-running shorebird breeding studies in the world.

"Since the world is going to hell now, the importance of this study now is that it can track the impact of climate change on the birds," said Dr. Erica Nol, the study leader. "Because the deniers will say there is a lot of variation in the data, it's only looking over the long term that you can detect a change—in reproductive success, adult survival, habitat."

The Churchill Northern Studies Centre moved into a new Silver LEED building (right) in 2011. The old building (left) still provides some lab and storage space. Image: Whitney Light

Polar bear and beluga whale-viewing tourism, which attracts thousands of visitors from around the world every year, helped put Churchill, population 810, on the map. But with climate change—particularly in the Arctic—now an international topic of concern, the the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC) is drawing a different kind of tourist.

Situated at the confluence of boreal, tundra and marine biomes, the independent research facility has for decades enabled scientists to work in the provincial sub-arctic. It was founded in 1976 as a community economic development project, and took over facilities erected for a now-decommissioned Cold War-era government rocket research station.

Nowadays, the centre is at the front-line of climate-related science and public education in Canada's north, with unusual programs to foster communication with the public. As a participant in one such program, I volunteered to wash dishes for a month, and in exchange, got to hang out with researchers and learn about their work.

After banding a semipalmated plover chick, Kenneth Mills makes a photo record of the band colour and number. Image: Whitney Light

Among several research projects taking place in July was the study of a wood frog that freezes solid in the winter only to hop back to life in the spring, carried out by Stephanie Bishir, a master's of science candidate at Southeast Missouri State University. Using radio, Bishir has been tracking frogs post-breeding as they move through their terrestrial habitat. The data she collects will contribute knowledge of the frogs' habitat-usage patterns and of how climate change is impacting amphibians.

In practice, this meant long weeks of sloshing around ponds in hip-waders to check up on frogs that she'd fixed with temporary radio belts.

Meanwhile, University of Guelph master's student Becky Godglick was examining pollination networks across various habitats in the forest-to-tundra treeline transition area. Equipped with siphons, vials, plastic bags and full face and torso insect-proof jackets, Godglick's team collected 450 pollinators—a painstaking process of circling sample sites and catching bees and other insects found resting on flowers.

Bishir re-locates a wood frog that she tagged using radio telemetry. Image: Whitney Light

"It's difficult in science to narrow [success] down to one piece of gold that one person discovers. The more valuable aspect is the larger data set over time," said Daniel Gibson, a seasonal research technician who's been coming back to the centre for four years.

Since 1971, for example, data shows that the average coastal air temperatures at Churchill have risen 0.5 degrees Celsius per decade. That's caused visible changes in recent years, such as earlier break-up and later freezing of Hudson Bay—a threat to polar bear-viewing tourism, studies have suggested. And because the centre is located where different biomes meet, scientists can observe species at the extreme edges of their range, which are more vulnerable to change.

On average, the centre hosts 75 separate research projects each year, as well as educational vacations and lectures for the general public, data collection projects carried out by self-funded citizen scientists, school programming and more. Executive director Grant MacNeil told me that the centre has a complete staff for the first time in about seven years, allowing it to focus more on programs that involve visitors and the community than it has in the past.

Insects collected in the field for Godglick's pollinator study are documented and preserved for identification. Image: Whitney Light

This is in part thanks to the centre's new digs in a Silver LEED certified building, completed in 2011 with funding help from the Arctic Research Infrastructure Fund. The comfortable, innovative building comprises science labs and classrooms as well as shared dormitory-style lodging and a cafeteria where researchers, vacationers, staff and dishwashers all sit down together.

"We spend less money to heat this building and the old building now than we did on the old building alone," MacNeil said.

Even then, the greatest challenge he foresees is sustaining the centre's new level of operations. While about 10 per cent of the budget comes from government sources, the rest is raised independently, through things like the sales of educational vacation packages and cost-saving measures like hiring volunteers to wash dishes. The upshot is academic freedom.

The Churchill Northern Studies Centre sits on the site of the decommissioned Churchill Rocket Research Range, built in 1956, now a national historic site of Canada since 1988. Image: Whitney Light

"We don't have to censor a researcher for their work, and the researchers know that and can be confident in that," MacNeil said.

Other research facilities have found out the value of independence the hard way. The Experimental Lakes Area, once a federally funded research facility, lost its funding in 2013 and was closed for two years. It has since reopened under the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

Churchill is also an attractive option for research because of its lower costs and greater accessibility compared to stations further north. It has helped enable long-term projects such as Nol's and many shorter projects that have inspired lifelong interest in northern issues—and some scientists have even made Churchill their entire career. "We've seen researchers come as students, then as master's and PhDs, professors who bring their own students and courses, and then die," MacNeil said.

Stephanie Bishir searches for wood frogs to track with radio tags. Image: Whitney Light

With climate change and northern economic growth both topics of increasing national importance, and with another science lab on the horizon—the recently announced Churchill Marine Observatory, to study sea ice and oil spills—the centre appears set to see only more compelling, dedicated work.

Correction, Sept. 23: A previous version of the article stated that the Churchill Northern Studies Centre moved into a new Gold LEED building in 2011. Rather, while the building was Gold LEED designed, it was ultimately Silver LEED certified. Motherboard regrets the error.