Scientists sift arctic snow for evidence of pollution, climate change

Ellesmere research could help gauge pace of global warming across the North


Digging in snow looks like a pastime for polar bears, but there’s a scientific method to graduate student Jane Kirk’s madness: she’s out on the sea ice to gather samples for research.

Kirk and a team of fellow scientists were recently in the High Arctic collecting snow samples for further study. Back at the University of Calgary, their analysis of the snow may explain why it contains high mercury levels, particularly in the spring.

This increase in mercury may be connected to chemical reactions, which occur when there are rising temperatures in the polar regions and more open water in the high latitudes – at least, that’s one of the possible explanations that researchers are exploring.

At the same time, project leader Vincent St. Louis wants know more about what happens after the mercury-filled snow melts into ponds that dot Ellesmere Island every summer. As these ponds heat up to as much as 18 C, they become mercury sinks: vegetation in and around them also heats up and decomposes, releasing both mercury and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

If temperatures continue to rise in the High Arctic, what goes on in these ponds could accelerate global warming and increase mercury contamination.

“It’s a gauge of what is going to happen in some of the other Arctic landscapes,” St. Louis says.

Tracking climate change is just one of many reasons that researchers head north with the return of light and warmth.

Another team of scientists from the University of Calgary has already spent weeks on Ellesmere’s Prince of Wales Icefield where they took ice cores from 280 and 150 metres down into the ice. A study of these ice cores will show, among other things, what the snowfall and sulphur levels in the atmosphere have been over the past 1000 years.

Meanwhile, another group, also from Calgary, just returned from the Devon Ice Cap where they continued their long-term study of glaciers in the High Arctic. This international project is looking at glaciers in Alaska, Patagonia and Nunavut to learn how much the glaciers have been melting since 1960 and why – not an easy task because many contradictory forces are at work.

“Every time you think you’re getting somewhere you have more questions,” says Martin Sharp of the University of Calgary.

These glaciers are more sensitive and responsive to climate change than Greenland’s huge ice sheet, Sharp explains, because they are located in areas that has experienced significant climate change in last century – and are projected to experience even more change in the next 100 years.

Over the past 45 years, shrinking glaciers in these regions have already contributed 1.2 mm to rising ocean levels. During this same period, smaller glaciers in Nunavut have shrunk about 20 to 30 per cent since 1960 and the larger ones about two per cent.

“What we find in general is that the glaciers that are on the east side of Devon and Ellesmere have taken more of a hammering,” Sharp says. “The biggest retreat we’ve seen has been nine kilometres and most of them have retreated in two to three kilometre range.”

This summer, another of Sharp’s projects involves testing improved radar altimeters out on the glaciers. This radar will be launched on the European Space Agency satellite CryoSat to provide more and better data on what is happening to glaciers.

An Environment Canada team has already deployed three ice buoys in the High Arctic. Resembling white chimney pipes stuck into the ice, these buoys, which are equipped with their own power supply as well as sophisticated recording and transmitting devices, tell how fast the wind is blowing or what the surrounding air temperature. By their changing positions, they show in what direction the sea ice is moving and the information the buoys convey is essential for weather and climate studies.

The Polar Continental Shelf Project, a federal service run out of Resolute Bay provides logistical support to these projects, some of the 125 going on this year in Nunavut. The PCSP flies researchers to remote sites all over the High Arctic and also offers them accommodation in Resolute.

But not every research project receives assistance from the PCSP. Graduate student Adam Pulpan made it on his own to Sanikiluaq to carry out research for his masters’ thesis.

Pulpan is looking at the role Inuit Qaujimajatuqaangit plays in education, and he’s at Nuiyaq School in Sanikiluaq, which is known for its innovative heritage projects. Since his arrival early last month, Pulpan has attended classes and helped in the making of a video on goose-plucking.

“Usually I like to participate and help because I’m also a teacher,” says Pulpan, who will be in Sanikiluaq until June 15. “I thought it was important to really engage myself. I don’t like the traditional model of research.”

Pulpan says he will work closely with people in Sanikiluaq during all phases of his fieldwork – forging a direct connection with residents that scientists who roam the High Arctic islands can only envy.

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