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2012 International Polar Year Conference

April 23, 2012 - Written by Christopher

Greetings from Montreal!  It's really hard to believe that the first day of this conference is already over.  It feels like two weeks could have been packed into today, which isn't far from the truth.  We started early - very early - at 3am, to catch our flight, which left BWI at 6am.  We got off our tiny little plane in Newark at 7:30, waited for an hour or two while they changed flight crews and "put stickers on oxygen tanks," and then got back on the exact same plane, which landed in Montreal around 10:30.  We caught a bus to the center of the city, where we had the exciting experience of trying to decode French street names to find our hotel, which is on the edge of le Quartier Chinois (Chinatown) in Montreal, less than a block from the convention center, and a very short walk from the Old City.

 After a quick lunch of Chinese food, we went straight to the convention center (Le Palais de Congrès) and registered for the conference.  We hung our Permafrost poster in the exhibition hall, and began scrutinizing the program for the talks that we wanted to attend.  The International Polar Year is an enormous conference, with talks in subject areas ranging from "Earth Structure and Geodynamics at the Poles" to "Polar Observing Systems and Remote Sensing," to "Indigenous and Local Knowledge," even including sessions on "Politics and Practice in Environmental Management" as it relates to the polar regions.  Each day is divided into three blocks, where about 10 "parallel" sessions take place, each in a different subject areas.  While the subject areas repeat every day, the speakers and presentations are different each time, making it possible to go to the same sessions multiple days in a row.  Today, we split up into three groups - Maia and Emily attended a session on "Polar Terrestrial and Freshwater Ecosystems;" Akira attended the Indigenous Knowledge session, and Webs and I attended the session that is perhaps the most exciting (and relevant) of all to our research: "Permafrost on a Warming Planet."  We had checked the online guide (for the conference is far too big for a paper one), and although the presentations looked interesting, they didn't seem to directly relate to our permafrost research.  We were both blown away by how relevant they were.  Six or seven scientists presented papers that they had recently published in permafrost-related fields. We heard about an examination of "massive ice" in northern Russia, (which is incredibly helpful in telling the geological history of a region, and affects the development of shorelines); a study of massive thaw slumps  (normally occurring in the Arctic region in places where the active layer is thicker than normal, usually on a small scale, but recently growing to the size of several city blocks and creating enormous amounts of sedimentary substrate, with chemical traces of the sediment appearing in the larger watershed); a study of permafrost detachments (like thaw slumps on a much, much smaller scale) and a related study on the resilience of the plant life on said detachments.  This last presentation used methods very similar to the ones that we use in the field, and it was all Webs and I could do to keep from whispering the entire time about how we could make our study better.  I took frantic, scribbled, somewhat-illegible notes, which we shared with each other later that evening.  (Since we're four people, we can all go to different sessions and then share what we learned later on.) 

The talks were over before we knew it, though, and soon it was time for our poster session.  We traipsed downstairs to the exhibition hall, where we took turns standing in front of our permafrost poster and explaining it to interested passers-by, and exploring the maze of posters full of ridiculously cool science that others had put together.  We met some really interesting people, an received positive feedback on our permafrost poster, as well as our toxicology poster.  We also ran into several people we knew from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre and a man who worked for Parks Canada as a freshwater ecologist in Wapusk National Park.

The end of the poster session marked the end of the conference for the day, so we returned to our hotel to devise a plan for dinner.  Some of us had our heart set on crèpes, and so we set off in search of a restaurant in Old Town that seemed to fit the bill.  Unfortunately, it was closed for renovations, but with the help of a former student of Webs's, and a little wandering around the city, we were able to find a wonderful place that seemed to serve chocolate with everything.  In the process, I discovered how beautiful Montreal is, and finally understood why it is so often compared to an old European city.  The streets are winding and cobbled; there are squares in front of cathedrals, like the Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal (pictured below), there are domed buildings and old wrought-iron stairways reaching up to second-story apartments and pedestrian-only walkways and marble carvings everywhere - it is truly unlike anything that can be seen in the United States.

After dinner (and a dessert of chocolate fondue, which Akira and I were able to order in French), we returned to the hotel to plan our schedules for the next day and to finally, after what seemed like an eternity, fall into a deep, much-needed sleep.  As always, I am the last awake, lying awake writing into the wee hours of the morning, tingling with excitement about how much I am going to learn tomorrow, and still not quite fully aware of the sheer remarkableness of the past day.


Tuesday, April 24 - Written by Emily King

We all woke up this morning mostly refreshed and ready for a full day of geeking out on polar science. After an unexotic yet tasty breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast in the koi pond-lined dining area, we headed across the street to Le Palais de Congrès. The now-familiar stairs and escalators took us up to the Plenary Hall where we heard an opening adress by Dr. David Hayes, the US Deputy Secretary of the Interior, on current policies in the US for protecting and conserving the arctic. This was followed by the Keynote speaker, Mr. Aqqaluk Lynge, who spoke on the importance of the traditional knowledge of First Nations people to the future of Arctic research and policy. We then got a quick coffee break which included mini croissants and excited chatter about our upcoming sessions.

Most of us went to the 'Permafrost on a warming planet' session, while Akira checked out the 'Polar microbes, genetics, and molecular biology' session. The interesting and relevant (to our study) talks included one about long-term trends in active layer thickness (yes, ALT is increasing), CO2 and CH4 oncentrations and emissions from permafrost, and spatial models of permafrost, ALT, temperature, and other parameters in our dear Wapusk National Park.

After the morning session there was a lunch break, which we all decided to spend in Plenary Hall to see the performances. The first performance was the Dakhká Khwáan group, a group of Yukon natives who sang and danced a few of their traditional songs. (You can find more info at their website). The second performance was ArtCirq, a group of Arctic natives who put on a comical circus act which included flipping, juggling, a human trombone, and a three-story human tower. (Here's a little more about ArtCirq).

Then it was time for the next session; for Maia and I it was 'Polar Terrestrial and Freshwater Ecosystems'. This session was focused on tundra vegetation, so we learned about (among other things) the increase in tundra biomass (known as the 'greening' of the Arctic), the changes in species abundance and overall species variation in the southern Yukon, and the effects of natural ecological disturbances ( in this case a severe storm) on the vegetation in the Mackenzie River delta.

Another quick coffee break followed, and we headed to the final set of parallel sessions for the day. I went to the 'Polar microbes, genetics, and molecular biology' session that Akira had spoken highly of. The session did not dissapoint, with talks on the effects of fasting on the gastrointestinal microbiomes of Little and King Penguins, a microbial characterization of Arctic polygon and runnel ponds, and a study of protists in a meromictic lakeon Ellesmere Island.

It was five in the afternoon, but we weren't quite done for the day. We all met up at our permafrost poster for the final poster session of the conference. Once again we milled around talking to other scientists about our research and theirs and admiring the hundreds of posters on display. Eventually we left for dinner, with plans to attend the polar film festival at 7. Leftover sandwiches and Tim Horton's re-engergized us enough to make it to the film festival, where we plopped into enormous, heavily cusioned red chairs, and watched the films. the first two were about 5 minutes; one showed an Inuit man kicking a suspended ball, and the second, slightly longer film was made for Parks Canada about the Torngat Mountains National Park and featured several First Nations people. The final film was about 1.5 hours, and Maia and I had been waiting to see it since monday afternoon when we heard the director, Joel Heath, talk in the 'Polar terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems' session. It was a film about Arctic eider ducks and their importance to First Nations people, and particularily those of Sanikiluaq in the Hudson Bay. The ducks are fascinating creatures that dive to the sea floor to feed on urchins and mussels, and there are particular populations (such as that near Sanikiluaq) that do not migrate in the fall. The ducks are also an integral part of Sanikiluaq and other First Nations communities; they are used for food and feathers. The documentary, called People of Feather, highlighted Joel Heath's research and incredible footage of the ducks, but it's main focus was on the people of Sanikiluaq and the importance of the ducks and really any other natural resource of the arctic that is at risk due to climate change, development, or any other factor that impacts the arctic. In the case of the eider ducks, it is the dams that are sending fresh water into the Bay and disrupting ice development and water currents that are essential parts of the ducks' habitats. It was a wonderful and inspiring film, and I encourage anyone to see it if you ever get the chance. Here's a link to the website for the foundation that was created to support eider ducks.

The filmakers and community members during the talkback that followed the film.

     All the excitement of the day wound down with a nice soak in the hotel's hot tub. We have another full day of Arctic immersion ahead!


Wednesday, April 25 - Written by Maia Draper-Reich

Today started and ended with crepes.  Every moment from the thin, slightly cold pancakes this morning at breakfast until the hot Nutella and strawberry-stuffed crepes that arrived at our table in the Old City this evening, our time and brains continued to be devoted to the North and the scientists who have devoted their lives to its study.  We crossed through the wind of the overcast morning to enter the massive Le Palais de Congrès.  Our walk through the building and up the escalators feels completely routine by now.  The keynote speaker this morning was Dr. Louis Fortier, the Scientific Director of ArcticNet.  He spoke about his organization's instrumental efforts to expand the body of knowledge of the Canadian Polar regions with strong emphasis on the necessity of collaboration and interdisciplinary study.  

All of us attended the final installment of the 'Permafrost on a warming planet' session.  We heard researchers speak about how the big ice cube under the Arctic affects the northern ecosystems, and also the effects of climate change on the permafrost.  Having felt that I had absorbed enough talks on pure science, I chose to attend a session that focused on what is referred to as "the third way of knowing."  This is the term applied to scientific study that integrates Western scientific practices and indigenous knowledge wherever possible.  Many scientific communities and governments do not recognize indigenous knowledge as legitimate information.  In our group, we have been having discussions about how frustrating that can be.  It seems ridiculous to discount the indigenous knowledge that has been passed down for hundreds of years.  If researchers are spending time in native communities, then the people who have lived on the land and truly know it are invaluable resources for the researchers who often are only able to work in the area for a few weeks.  This set of talks exemplified the partnerships that I would hope would be more frequent throughout the Arctic research community.  Research projects such as the creation of the Siku Atlas ( met the needs of the community by engaging the elders and youth in conversations about their shared culture while making a catalogue of knowledge about these three northern Canadian communities available and accessible.  The third session of talks I attended, entitled 'Communities and change: vulnerability, resilience, and adaptation,' was less inspiring as it outlined many gaps in our knowledge.  There were a few social studies that showed potential, such as one that focused on the pressures and values that exist in adolescents in circumpolar communities as they approach adulthood.  However, this study, although it had data from teens from all around the world, seemed not to dive deep enough into the stresses and problems these young people deal with and encounter.  It did make me very aware of how invasive our Western culture is.  My perception is that northern indigenous teens face the contradictions between preserving their culture and moving forward with "Western" advances.  They seem to crave popular culture in some ways.  I wonder how they would react if I told them how I long for a culture that lives connected to the earth and the ecosystems that surround it.  I think we are the same in that we don't know where to begin in approaching the other's way of life.  

We concluded our three day marathon of Arctic education by walking six blocks towards the river to the Old Port where the CCGS Amundsen is docked and open for tours.  We walked through the ship's decks, cockpit, galley, cabins, lounges, and research labs and facilities.

The boat is an impressive resource for ice and water studies throughout the Canadian north.  

 After our tour, we walked a few blocks into Old Montreal, to a creperie where cheese fondu and crepes were enjoyed by all.  We returned to our hotel filled with chocolate, strawberries, happiness, and brains buzzing with the new information we acquired. We compiled a list of studies that relate to our two projects from our extensive notes of the presentations we've listened to over the past three days.  We also wrote a list of questions and a list of things that need to get done soon.  We are more inspired than ever to continue doing the work we are doing, prepare for next year's trip, and begin putting drafts of the two papers we'd like to write together.  It's not every day that people you meet ask what your Master's degree research is on and you have to explain that you haven't graduated from high school yet.  We've been given a wonderful window into the the scientific community, and in particular, to a sector of the community that, in its urgency, has come together in unique ways.  There is little competition in Arctic research.  There is only the need to increase the knowledge base, refine research practices, and find answers that will help us to understand and protect the beautiful and fragile environments that are harshly threaten by climate change.  I am honored to be a part of the Arctic research community and I extremely grateful for the opportunity to attend the 2012 International Polar Year Conference.