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Kelvin High School students get chance to study permafrost and polar bears in Northern Manitoba

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It’s the type of school assignment that has the potential to literally send chills down a student’s spine — travel to the Far North and research polar bears and permafrost.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/02/2017 (2170 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s the type of school assignment that has the potential to literally send chills down a student’s spine — travel to the Far North and research polar bears and permafrost.

That’s what students from Kelvin High School have been doing for several years, in a unique international agreement.

Students conduct and lead the research, and are advised by two scientists from the University of Manitoba and a scientist from the University of Saskatchewan. The partnership also includes Park School of Baltimore (Maryland) and the Canadian Junior Rangers from Churchill to form ISAMR (International Student-Led Arctic Monitoring and Research).

A mother Arctic fox watches her pups.

“We learn about the history and culture of the North and most importantly, experience the beauty of the land by living right on the tundra. What a breath-taking experience to see the northern lights dancing across the sky or to watch Arctic fox pups jumping and tumbling together,” Kelvin HS chemistry teacher and trip leader Donna Labun said in an online article produced by the Winnipeg School Division.

Labun agreed to discuss the ISAMR with the Winnipeg Free Press via an email interview.

WFP: When and how did you get involved with the International Student-Led Arctic Monitoring and Research project?

DL: Kelvin High School started taking students up to the subarctic in 2011 when Dr. Jim Roth from the University of Manitoba invited us to join him and another school group on a trip into Wapusk National Park where he studies Arctic fox populations. Shortly after this, we met Dr. Jane Waterman, also from the University of Manitoba, and added a fall trip to study the polar bears in the Churchill area. Kelvin formed a partnership with the Junior Canadian Rangers from Churchill and the Park School of Baltimore to create ISAMR (International Student-led Arctic Monitoring and Research). We wanted the name to reflect that this was a group with a very special mandate: The research would be driven by the students and mentored by the professors and teachers and would involve long-term monitoring of the very important northern environment. Our goal is a projected 30-year study of the impact of climate change on the ecology of the subarctic region. The students on this trip do not simply learn about science — they become scientists!

FP: How many students have been, and are currently, involved in it; and how are students chosen for ISAMR?

Students examine the permafrost.

DL: There are many ways that students can become involved in the program. Each year 16 students are chosen to travel up during the summer to live out on the tundra for two weeks and study the vegetation, permafrost, and Arctic foxes. During the November trip, 20 students travel up to Churchill to study polar bears. The research continues throughout the year and students can be involved in the data analysis even if they are unable to go on the trips. During the past few years, the Junior Canadian Rangers have also created a third trip during February where they travel by snowmobile to the research station in Wapusk National Park. They collect snowpack data on the sites that are studied during the summer months to add another piece to the data set. There are about 50 students involved each year. The participants are chosen based on their interest and involvement in the program.

FP: Is this considered a credit course for the students? How is the project funded?

DL: Kelvin students from grades 9 to 12 are invited to be part of the Arctic club. It is not a credit course, but involves a large commitment from the students. We are considering building on this work and developing an Environmental Science course. We are very excited about the multi-disciplinary components of this experience. Kelvin social studies teacher, Miguel Berube, plays an important role in expanding the science focus to include aspects of the history and culture of the North. While in Churchill, we have the privilege of listening to Caroline Bjorkland, a Sayisi Dene elder, speak about her experience of forced relocation, residential schools, and her journey towards healing.

Students are required to read the very powerful book: Night Spirits: The Story of the Relocation of the Sayisi Dene by Ila Bussidor and Ustun Bilgen-Reinart.

A large portion of the funding is from an NSERC PromoScience grant through the University of Manitoba. Their mandate is to work with young Canadians to inspire an interest in science and to motivate young people to pursue science careers.

Sam Cochran, Phaolan Sewell and Sean Perry.

FP: What type of research are the students doing in Churchill? Who are their scientific mentors?

DL: Polar bears and permafrost are two of the indicators that we are studying to monitor the impact of climate change. In the fall, we travel with Dr. Waterman up to Churchill to non-invasively track and study polar bears. Armed with cameras, binoculars and rangefinders, the students travel on tundra buggies to collect the data used to find the body size and body condition of the bears. The whisker-pattern identification software developed in Dr. Waterman’s lab is then used to identify the bears and add them to the Polar Bear identification library. Currently we are also comparing the symmetry of the two sides of each bear to see if this fluctuating asymmetry in the whisker spots may be an indicator of the increased stresses of climate change. We have also partnered with Dr. Stephen Petersen at the Leatherdale International Polar Bear Conservation Centre at the Assiniboine Park Zoo to do a comparison of the data from both wild and captive bears.

In the summer, the focus is on studying the permafrost layer in the tundra. The hope is to develop a model for predicting the depth of the active layer — the layer above the permafrost that melts and freezes annually — based on surface indicators such as vegetation. If there is a correlation between the vegetation cover and the active layer thickness, we could use this as a predictive model for studying the active layer thickness in the future. We have a number of bog and fen sites that we have been monitoring together with the school from Baltimore over the last ten years. This project is mentored by Dr. Brook from the University of Saskatchewan. We have also been studying the Arctic fox populations in Wapusk National Park with Dr. Roth. Parks Canada staff, Jill Larkin and Heather McLeod, have been a wonderful support and we have learned a lot about the science and history of the area as they accompany us to the research station in Wapusk National Park.

FP: Have the students presented their research at conferences or seminars?

DL: Kelvin students have been presenting at scientific conferences for the past five years. This year the students presented their research at ArcticNet as the first high school students to give official research talks alongside the professors and graduate students. They also presented two posters in the poster session. This was a great conference to attend as the mission statement of the ASM2016 is to welcome researchers, students, Inuit, Northerners, policy makers and stakeholders to address the numerous environmental, social, economical and political challenges and opportunities that are emerging from climate change and modernization in the Arctic.

Donna Labun photos The research puts the students in close proximity of Arctic fox pups.

Kelvin students also joined other ISAMR members from Baltimore and Churchill to present a talk and three posters at the Wapusk National Park Symposium last December in Winnipeg. This was a great opportunity for the students to learn and collaborate with other scientists and to contribute to the discussions on the future of Wapusk National Park. Last year students presented at the ArcticNet conference in Vancouver as well as the Wildlife Society Conference in Winnipeg.

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