Three DGES grad students win awards from Association of Candian Universities for Northern Studies and the Canadian Northern Studies Trust

PhD students Brendan O’Neill & Erica Oberndorfer and MSc student Sarah Quann recently won 3 prestigious awards from the scholarship program of ACUNS (Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies).

ACUNS established its scholarship program, the Canadian Northern Studies Trust (CNST) in 1982 to advance knowledge and understanding of Canada’s North. The purpose of the CNST is to develop a cadre of scholars and scientists with northern experience and, at the same time, to enhance the educational opportunities available for northern residents.

Erica Oberndorfer was awarded the Canadian Polar Commission Scholarship. It is valued at $10,000 and is offered to a doctoral candidate in any discipline conducting northern research with an interdisciplinary focus.

Brendan O’Neill and Sarah Quann won the W. Garfield Weston Award for Northern Research. This award is valued at $50,000 (over 2 years) at the doctoral level and $15,000 (one year only) at the master’s level. These awards are offered to candidates engaged in a natural science program leading to a thesis who demonstrate exceptional promise, academic excellence, and leadership, a strong commitment to northern research.

Erica Oberndorfer

Erica Oberndorfer

Erica’s research deals with the shared stories of people and plants: Cultural and ecological relationships between people and plants in Makkovik, Nunatsiavut (Labrador)

Plants are often characterized by external observers as being of little importance to northern peoples. In the Inuit Community of Makkovik (Nunatsiavut, Labrador), residents express a very different perspective on the importance of people-plant relationships. Makkovimiut (Makkovik community members) describe a rich tapestry of regionally-unique cultural plant practices that promote individual and community well-being, help to strengthen connections to the land, and strongly support community traditions of sharing and reciprocity. This research responds to local research priorities shared by Makkovimiut during collaborative research planning. In particular, it seeks to document “the stories people tell about plants”— including plant practices, ways of caring for plants, and the worldviews that anchor people-plant relationships—and to help integrate these stories into local education, wellness, and conservation programming. Cultural knowledge is equally at the heart of interdependent ecological research into “the stories plants tell about people,” which considers how cultural harvesting and management practices can alter the distribution and abundance of plant species, effectively creating signatures of people-plant relationships in the landscape. This collaborative research aims to encourage discussion on the cultural aspects of northern biological systems, and the ways in which the health of cultural and biological systems is deeply intertwined.

Brendan’s research examines how environmental factors, particularly air temperature, snow cover, and soil moisture, affect freezeback of the active layer and resulting permafrost temperatures. Permafrost temperatures are inherently linked to air temperatures, and generally decline moving northward. However, snow and soil moisture also strongly influence the freezeback of the active layer and mean annual temperatures of the underlying permafrost. Snow insulates the ground from cold air, and latent heat is released when soil moisture freezes, delaying freezeback of the active layer and limiting ground cooling in winter. Climate models predict increased precipitation in the fall, and rising winter air temperatures. The research will examine the respective influences of air temperature, snow, and soil moisture on the freezeback period and resulting permafrost temperatures, in order to investigate the impacts of climate change on permafrost terrain stability. Additionally, permafrost will be monitored beside the Dempster Highway near Ft. McPherson, NWT, to examine its degradation along the road and inform maintenance and management of northern highways.

Sarah Quann and Brendan O'Neill

Sarah Quann and Brendan O’Neill

Sarah’s work focuses on the relationship between tree growth and climate at the northern tree line near Inuvik, NT. In the past few decades it has been observed that some northern trees exhibited lower growth rates as temperatures warmed during the 20th century, commonly referred to as the “divergence problem”. While the divergence problem has been widely identified in studies measuring the annual ring-width of northern trees, it is unclear whether other tree-ring measures such as maximum density are similarly impacted. Maximum density refers to the dense cells produced by a tree at the end of the growing season. The main objective of this research is to determine if the divergence problem affects maximum density from white spruce trees growing close to the northern treeline near Inuvik, NT. This research will improve understanding of the complex relationship between climate and annual tree growth.

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