Forest biology graduate students land shipboard post as Arctic scientists-in-residence

Forest biology and management students Carolyn Gibson and McKenzie Kuhn are off on a summer-job adventure that may be impossible to top in their lifetimes, let alone next summer.

“As I’m talking about it, it’s like I’m stepping out of my body,” said an exuberant Gibson, 24, who with Kuhn, 25, has been named a scientist-in-residence for a 11-day ocean-going safari through the Arctic’s Northwest Passage that starts this week.

Their itinerary takes them up the western coast of Greenland and across Baffin Bay, over the top of Baffin Island to Beechey Island, Devon Island and Resolute Bay, aboard a ship owned by the tour company Adventure Canada. The company sails travellers to remote spots (including the Arctic and Antarctic) to explore geography, wildlife and culture, and staffs each voyage with scientists, historians and artists to add value for their paying customers.

In addition, its Young Explorers Program offers young explorers, aged 19 to 30, the opportunity to propose an on-board project in science, social science or the arts and come along, too. Gibson and Kuhn’s idea was chosen from scores of other applicants.

The duo will not only see such wonders of the world as Ilulissat Icefjord in Greenland, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the outlet of the world’s fastest moving glacier, they will also disembark frequently to sample water at landing locations for methane and explain their work and its significance to other voyageurs.

“Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, much like carbon dioxide, but its warming potential (its ability to trap heat in the atmosphere) is up to 36 per cent greater,” said Gibson, who like Kuhn is earning her master’s degree in the Department of Renewable Resources.

“It has been suggested that high Arctic regions are a source of methane, but due to the remoteness and the cost of doing research there, that remains unknown.”

The two hope that the data they collect on this trip will be useful to Kuhn’s PhD thesis, in which she plans to explore how the small ponds formed as permafrost thaws are related to methane emissions to the atmosphere. However, the Arctic experience will certainly inform Gibson’s ongoing interest in understanding climate change in the Arctic, and they plan to produce a small publication about their research, post-trip.

While Gibson is over-the moon at being chosen for the trip, which has a value of $15,000 per passenger and also promises plenty of marine life sightings, and cultural presentations by Arctic communities, she is equally enthusiastic about the opportunity to share her passion for the Arctic region. That love was instilled in her at 16, when she made her first visit to the Arctic Circle with a charitable foundation called Students On Ice, which takes high school students on polar expeditions, and grew during numerous field-study visits to the southern Arctic accumulated during her past six years at the University of Alberta.

“This region is important. Whether you are studying cultural, biological, environmental or aquatic environments, they are all tightly linked,” said Gibson. “The Arctic is undergoing such rapid change and that change will affect us all in the future.”