Park School students bound for Arctic to conduct more climate change research

When Anna Connors hears politicians cast doubt on climate change, it frustrates her. The 16-year-old Park School student has seen it up close — at the edge of the Arctic.

“It’s upsetting because we have the data to prove it does exist,” she said. “I guess that lights a fire under me to continue this work.”

“This work” is a research project Park students have been conducting for a decade — traveling to northern Canada to investigate the melting of permafrost and possible corresponding changes to the lichens, moss and shrubs that cover the tundra.

Connors, who has made the trip before, will return Sunday as she and five schoolmates leave for another round of data gathering. They will spend nearly two weeks visiting research sites along the western shore of Hudson Bay, measuring how deep the annual summer thaw goes and recording the variety and abundance of vegetation on the surface.

Baltimore students have been embarking on similar trips since 2007, and even more could join in the research in coming years. Park, which got a grant from the Canadian government three years ago to help pay for the travel, got another grant — $156,000 — this year. Park science teacher Julie Rogers said she hopes to convince U.S. government research agencies to chip in, too.

It’s a rare chance for the teenagers to conduct science, rather than read about it in a textbook. That, plus the culture shock of being thrown into remote Manitoba, make it a special experience, said Connors, who will be leading the students’ data collection.

“Nothing can really prepare you for what’s going to be up there,” she said. “We say the Arctic ‘F’ word is ‘flexibility.’”

The project is dubbed International Student-Led Arctic Monitoring and Research, or ISAMR. Students from Park, a private school in Baltimore County, and the city school system’s Baltimore Polytechnic Institute partner with students at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg and from remote parts of Canada participating in the Junior Canadian Rangers program.

Rogers co-founded ISAMR with Canadian colleagues in 2007. While it requires a significant time commitment even during the school year, interest is strong. About three dozen Park and Poly students currently take part in the research in Baltimore. “The notion of climate change really motivates kids to work together,” she said.

This year, six Park students are making the 1,500-mile trip. It usually involves flights to Winnipeg and a 36-hour train ride toward the Arctic, but flooding that followed unusually heavy winter snows washed out parts of the tracks. So this year’s trip will be entirely by air. Once the group reaches the northern Manitoba town of Churchill, helicopters will ferry the students to different areas of Wapusk National Park and other wilderness.

They sleep on camping mats on gym floors and inside a fort that dates to the 1600s; their wardrobe consists of hiking boots and pants, plus plenty of rain gear. Some years, it has rained nonstop, Rogers said, though this year the forecast looks mostly dry. The students also share three pairs of “waders,” rubberized boots and pants that hang by suspenders, for their field work.

Though it is the Arctic, temperatures are generally mild, from the 50s to the 70s. In areas with thin active layers, where the permafrost is close underfoot, it feels colder, but Rogers said she also always packs for some heat.

“I love it when I can wear my tank top in the Arctic,” she said. “Sometimes it gets warmer than it should be.”

The grant, from Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, covers about half of the research trip’s cost. The cost to each student is $1,000 plus airfare, though Park offers financial assistance to those who need it, Rogers said.

Their research is exploring changes in Arctic permafrost. Each day, data collection will involve driving metal rods into the ground to measure the depth of what is known as the active layer — the top few inches of soil that thaws each summer — and taking stock of herbs, shrubs, lichen and moss on the surface. Sometimes, the layer is only about elbow-deep, but in other areas, the students have to screw on extension rods to reach depths of about 3 meters.

They will also collect soil samples so they can study the bacteria that live within the layer — the microbes play a key role in releasing carbon stored within the ground as it thaws, exacerbating global climate change.

It’s empowering work, said Matthew Hudes, a 16-year-old who is also making his second trip to Churchill.

“This is a lab that adults don’t know the answers to,” he said. “We can’t go to Julie and say, ‘We’re done; just tell us the answers now.’”

The data could help the students find a correlation between abundance or type of vegetation and the thickness of the active layer, Connors explained. That could answer questions such as, does more vegetation mean more thawing? Can the active layer’s thickness be predicted based on the vegetation on the surface?

The students will venture back to Canada in the fall to participate in research to develop a polar bear marking and tracking technique that involves photographing the animals and using software to recognize them by their whisker patterns.

Yet the real work takes place during the school year. Students meet weekly to analyze the data collected during the trips. They have already produced one research paper that compared different techniques for gathering data on vegetation cover, and traveled to Vancouver to present it to adult scientists.

Mahey Gheis has been involved in the project since her sophomore year, but said the research always intimidated her — she mostly worked on the project website, isamr.net, where the students share their work and will blog updates on the trip. But this summer was the 17-year-old’s last chance to join in the data collection because she graduates next spring. She couldn’t pass it up.

“It’s this unique opportunity, this once-in-a-lifetime experience. I just wanted to get out of my comfort zone,” she said.

As she and her classmates met Friday for some final packing and practice identifying vegetation, she said she felt apprehension because she’s heading so far from home. But she also felt excitement.

“It’s nice to get a complete break from everything that’s normal.”

sdance@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ssdance

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
32°