Written by DGES Graduate Student Keegan Smith
Carleton graduate students Zoe Panchen (Ph.D. candidate, Biology Department) and Melissa Nacke (M.Sc. candidate, DGES) presented highlights of their research at the January meeting of The Arctic Circle, a monthly gathering of researchers and enthusiasts united by their passion for the North. The talks were delivered as part of the Arctic Circle’s celebration of their 500th meeting (held in April 2014), which included a contest for student members of the group to win round-trip airfare with First Air to the Arctic to support their summer fieldwork (Zoe and Melissa were the winners of the contest).
Melissa was the first to present her talk: “The influence of a grounded ice island on the marine environment in the Canadian Arctic”. Ice islands are huge tabular icebergs that have broken away from ice shelves or floating glacial tongues and can alter the biology in the surrounding waters. Her talk focused on the physical processes behind this effect, the sampling methods used to study these processes, and preliminary results from her work in Resolute Bay in summer, 2014.
Melissa’s original sampling strategy involved taking water samples every few days at several sites around an ice island and testing for salinity, temperature, nutrient, and chlorophyll a (a pigment used to indicate the presence of phytoplankton). However, thick fog and sea ice moved into the study area during her trip, and she was forced to abandon sampling at all but a single site. “I’m someone who likes to have everything organized and in control,” says Melissa. “Since Arctic fieldwork never goes as planned my biggest challenge was to learn how to take a deep breath and not stress about an uncontrollable situation.”
Despite the challenges she faced, Melissa was able to determine that chlorophyll a concentrations around the ice island were near those seen during algal blooms – suggesting that there is dramatically increased biological activity around the ice island, possibly due to nutrient enrichment of the water. “This experience taught me how to stay Zen and roll with the punches,” she says.
Zoe’s talk was entitled “Arctic plant phenology: Is climate change impacting flowering and fruiting times?” Phenology is the study of the timing of periodic events in the life cycles of animals and plants, and is the focus of Zoe’s Ph.D. research. This has led her to study roughly 60 species of Arctic plants. Her research question focuses on the effect of climate change on the phenology of these species.
In the past several decades, plants in temperate regions have been flowering earlier – by approximately one day per decade. Temperate regions typically have long historical records of preserved herbarium specimens, accumulated by researchers over many years. In the Arctic, however, such records are a luxury. The traits of many Arctic plants are poorly known and only sporadically observed, necessitating a rigorous sampling approach across a large area.
For Zoe, this meant finding plants that could be smaller than her fingertips in vast, open landscapes, based on scanty historical notes that indicated their presence in the area. Splitting her time between Iqaluit, NU, and Lake Hazen (on Ellesmere Island), NU, Zoe spent three months seeking out and recording flowering and fruiting data on Arctic plant species. “Between my 3 field assistants and I,” she says, “we had 3,600 plants tagged last summer and had sometimes as many as several hundred flowers to count on a single plant. Fortunately the plants don’t all have that number of flowers, or all at the same time. I have a lot of data to analyse!”
But preliminary results are telling; minimum annual temperatures have been increasing, especially late in the growing season – a condition that may be driving noteworthy changes. Through work conducted with Parks Canada on their International Tundra Experiment at Tanquary Fiord, Zoe has found that Mountain Avens, a species that flowers in mid-summer, is flowering and fruiting earlier than it was 20 years ago when the experiment started.
Aside from simply locating her plants (“It was like searching for a needle in a haystack”, she says), Zoe’s greatest challenge in the field was also one of her greatest highlights. “Coming over the brow of a hill to see a group of muskox grazing or… a pack of wolves moving effortlessly across the tundra is awe-inspiring. But… the muskox and Arctic hare have a penchant for eating the plants I am studying!”
Arctic Circle meetings are held at 8:00 PM at the RCAF Officer’s Mess in Ottawa on the second Tuesday of every month. The next meeting will be on February 10th. Dr. Warwick Vincent of the Laval University Biology Department will present: “Life in cold waters: The remarkable lake and coastal ecosystems of northern Ellesmere Island and their global importance”.
Thanks to Brendan O’Neill, Zoe Panchen, and Melissa Nacke for providing photos, and for their help in editing this article.