While flying hundreds of miles over the flat, scrubby tundra of northern Manitoba in a float plane this summer, Prof. Phil Camill and his three research students spotted 16 polar bears, some of them mothers traveling with cubs. The students also kayaked among pods of beluga whales in Hudson Bay and saw the Northern Lights during their two-week trip.
These were just some of the benefits of conducting arctic research with Camill, Bowdoin’s Rusack Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Earth and Oceanographic Science. Camill is part of a National Science Foundation-funded research team along with Zicheng Yu, of Lehigh University, and Dave Beilman, of University of Hawaii. Their work could help revise theories of how climate warming will affect the carbon sequestered in the earth’s vast stretches of peatland.
The other perk for the three students, Anna Westervelt ’14, Cameron Adams ’14, and Anna Hall ’15, was they were able to contribute to high-level scientific research: They analyzed and collected data, pulled out results and drew conclusions. “They’re part of this research team, investigating questions,” Camill said. “One of my goals as a faculty member is to let students experience firsthand the entire scientific process.”
The students said unanimously that this training was the best part of the experience, which clearly had a lot of competing bests. “Being out there, getting to see and participate in research, it’s hard to replicate that in the classroom,” Adams pointed out.
For three weeks in June, while they were still on campus, Camill collaborated with his research assistants to analyze peatland soil data from previous work in northern Manitoba. The students formulated original hypotheses from the data and will present their findings at the October science symposium at Bowdoin.
After completing phase one, the team embarked on phase two: collecting new peat samples. They left in July for a research station in Churchill, Manitoba, where they were based for two weeks, living with other scientists who were investigating subjects such as polar bears, dragonflies and beluga whales. Their journey required a four-day drive to Thompson, one of the the last outposts in Manitoba accessible by car. They flew from there to Churchill, which can only be reached by train or plane.
Once they had mastered how to use a shotgun to scare polar bears away in the field, the research team, which included one of Camill’s colleagues from St. Olaf College, flew up to 200 miles every day, visiting a total of 16 research sites. From the plane, Anna Westervelt described, “you look for miles and miles, from horizon to horizon, and you can’t see human influence at all. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The plane landed in one of the myriad lakes in the region, and the team lugged equipment across the squishy terrain to the sampling sites. They used coring equipment to pull up peat, sometimes over three meters deep, which can provide an 8,000-year snapshot of climate change.
About 6,500 to 3,500 years ago, this cold region of Canada was slightly warmer than today, Camill explained. That earlier period, the Holocene Thermal Maximum, was followed by a cooling period, which is now transitioning back to a warmer period caused by fossil fuel release. Peat cores, which are made up of the remains of dead plants, build up over time. When the plants die, they and the carbon they contain get buried in the soil, while the plants on the surface continue to grow.
Current thinking has it that when the planet warms, the peat will thaw and decompose, releasing a big slug of its stored carbon into the atmosphere. But historical data from this multi-year research in arctic ecosystems may show a different story — that in a past, warmer world, plant growth and carbon storage might have actually increased. If a similar effect were to occur with modern warming, the added soil carbon storage could possibly offset the carbon released by thawing plants. But Camill warns that even if this were the case, it’s not likely that arctic plant growth would keep up with the rate at which people are releasing fossil fuels into the atmosphere.
Anna Hall said that prior to the trip, she had never imagined soil could be so exciting scientifically. While she had been considering studying climate change in graduate school, she had not thought of focusing on the ground.
“This trip opened up a lot of paths I didn’t know existed,” she said. “I never thought about peat or soil; I didn’t know how fascinated I’d become with dirt. It’s an incredible record of past climate history.”