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Transatlantic connections in the Canadian Arctic

PhD student Adam Francis was treated to a spectacular Aurora Borealis in the Canadian Arctic
PhD student Adam Francis was treated to a spectacular Aurora Borealis in the Canadian Arctic

by Adam Francis, PhD student at , a partner of UHI

Even in the height of spring, the Canadian Arctic is cold. Around -40oC cold. On the Belcher Islands, a remote archipelago in Hudson Bay, travel is by snowmobile over sea ice and the landscape is so remote and vast that you can drive for hours with only ice in view.

Carrying out scientific fieldwork in this other-worldly wilderness, it was difficult to comprehend that the settlement I called home for three weeks, Sanikiluaq is on the same latitude as Barcaldine!

There is a strong link to Scotland in these islands going back to the 19th century, when the Hudson Bay Company brought Scottish traders to communities all over northern Canada and worked with the indigenous people to trade goods for furs, which were brought back to the UK. Many Scots lived with the Inuit people and several of the local Inuits I met mentioned they had Scottish ancestors!

We, too, worked alongside the Inuit community in our research project in the Belcher Islands, as they were the first people to notice environmental changes happening all around the lands they know so well. Thinner and less predictable sea ice, water circulation and salinity changes and declines in populations of native animals are all impacts of climate change. But there has also been a lesser-known impact from a huge increase in hydro-electric schemes built on many large rivers surrounding Hudson Bay.

These schemes change the timing and the intensity of the flow of freshwater into Hudson Bay with more water being released in winter to meet higher energy demands of cities in the colder times of year. These rivers would naturally have the greatest flow during the spring melt season in May/June but recently these modified catchments now cause water to flow under the winter sea ice in different and largely unknown patterns around Hudson Bay.

The physical, chemical, and ecological impacts of this are unclear but the impacts on the local communities are already being felt, not least in unpredictability of the sea ice composition, which affects fishing and hunting and makes travel hazardous at times. Our research project is attempting to determine these impacts by visiting many sites across the Belcher islands, taking detailed measurements of water properties, and taking samples of the sea ice algae and the water column to measure its chemical components. We collaborated with the Arctic Eider Society, a newly formed charity that works with Inuit communities to conduct research and educate people on the issues facing the Arctic, using the eider duck as a key species to monitor changes.

I took part in the fieldwork on behalf of my PhD supervisor at , Dr Robyn Tuerena and worked alongside scientists from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. The work involved loading up sleds towed by snowmobiles with multiple boxes of scientific equipment including ice corers, CTDs (a device for measuring the conductivity, temperature, and depth of the water column), a water column sampling device and many sample bottles. We then rode on the sleds to the sample site while being bounced around in freezing temperatures and wind chill for up to six hours a day. Luckily, we had very thick and warm parkas and trousers filled with eider down, the warmest feather in the world! This sustainably harvested feather is made into the warm clothing by the Inuit of Sanikiluaq and is forming an important part of their culture and economy. Locals would accompany us each day as they knew how to navigate these frozen seas and islands safely and efficiently.

We would spend an hour at each side working quickly in the cold conditions, coring ice, lowering instruments through the water, and filling all our sample bottles before returning to Sanikiluaq to filter and process the samples the following day. This process was repeated whenever we had good weather to go out. However, blizzards, whiteouts and fog often kept us in the village for several days at a time. At the end for the trip, samples were taken back to and the University of Manitoba for further analysis on algal communities, carbon and nitrogen concentrations and many more detailed measurements.

The three weeks I spent on the Belcher Islands opened my eyes to a very different community to much of the western world. The people there are facing great future changes from not just climate change but also from an energy solution, in the form of hydro power, that is regarded as ‘green’ and therefore better for the environment.

I hope the results from this project can be used to influence policy decisions and allow the communities we were welcomed into to continue to live and pass on their way of life to future generations, as well as understanding and managing changes across the Arctic as a whole. is playing an important role in this and leading a new period of a scientific link between Scotland and the Belcher Islands with the historical (and latitudinal) link still very present.