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1998-2007

A Volunteer's Vacation (10/02)

By Dot Myer

Global warming first shows up in the arctic regions. This summer, I studied climate change at the edge of the arctic as part of an Earthwatch team. We worked in Churchill, Manitoba on the western shores of Hudson Bay.

Because Churchill is just at tree line, we were able to look at both tundra and forested areas. One of our tasks was to insert probes into the soil until they reached frozen ground. These should sink a bit deeper each week until they stop at the level of permafrost. We collected and processed soil samples to determine, among other things, the carbon content which will indicate whether plant matter speeds or slows global warming.

At first, I was appalled when we collected plant samples, but the researchers assured me they were not rare plants and taking a sample for scientific purposes would not harm them. Some of the more interesting plants were rhododendrons, laurels, miniature willows, beautiful tiny orchids, bog rosemary and gooseberry.

In our bird survey, we found 22 types of birds. The birders added new species to their life lists while those of us less sophisticated bird watchers most enjoyed a pair of tundra swans we saw regularly, nesting ptarmigans, sandhill cranes flying overhead and Canada geese in their summer homes. All this information will be collected over time and may show trends in climate change and its effect on plants and animals. It may also give clues as to what we may expect at lower latitudes.

Our major project was to revegetate a former military base. The land was greatly disturbed by gravel pits, roads and a bunker platform (a large flat graveled area). Little was growing in these areas and we were assigned five sites in which to plant. We divided our prospective gardens into fours: three plots to receive various enhancements and one as a control. In the lab, we counted and weighed seeds, then mixed them with fertilizer and peat before planting them in our plots. Our reward will come in months or years when we find out how our little gardens succeed and which treatment worked best.

This project was not all work and no play. We ate dinner in Churchill twice and saw the sights, including the famous polar bear jail where bears who come too close to town are incarcerated. We participated in Canada Day celebrations including a parade, tug-of-war and the Bay Dip where relay teams ran into the frigid water next to an ice flow. We went out in a Zodiac (a small rubber boat) for a beluga whale watch. Some of the whales came so close to the boat, the driver had to scare them away from the propellers. He said this had never happened before.

Our greatest excitement came on our last night. Someone said, “There’s a polar bear a half mile down the road.” We grabbed our binoculars and ran to the vans. Down on the other side of a pond, we saw a big fat bear walking calmly, close enough to see, far enough not to disturb. After about ten minutes, he disappeared into some bushes. Since polar bears live out on the ice most of the year, this was a special treat and only the third bear seen on land up to that time. A great ending to a great trip.

For information on outdoor volunteers, contact: earthwatch.org or wildernessvolunteers.org.