Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Student e-mail from Churchill, Manitoba

This February, Ruth Heindel traveled to Churchill Manitoba to participate in an Earthwatch Program and volunteered at a science station there. I thought you might be interested in her e-mails.

Hello everyone!!I've been here a few days now and have gotten a feel of Churchill,Manitoba, so I thought I would send everyone an update to let you all knowhow I'm doing.Basically, Churchill is amazing. The landscape is unlike anything I'veever seen, and the wide spaces are liberating but at the same time alittle terrifying. It is so flat here that you can see for miles -- milesof stumpy trees and bushes in one direction and miles of the endless whiteice of Hudson Bay in the other. The sky is huge as well, since there areno mountains to block it. I just came inside from a Northern Lightsviewing session and it was incredible. The milky light has hints of pinkand green and looks like heavy cream being poured across the sky. Thelight changes constantly, and sometimes so fast that it "dances". Theonly nights out here without the Aurora are the nights with clouds. Otherthan that, there is a constant display going on.On a smaller scale, the snow, trees, and animals offer just as muchexcitement. Because it is constantly windy in Churchill the snow formshuge drifts and ridges with many different textures. Some of it is rockhard (which makes for easy walking) and some is fine powder (which makesfor amusing walking). With these different textures come differentsounds. On the hard stuff the squeak is so high-pitched and the flyingsnow from walking can sound like running water.In terms of animal activity I have seen an arctic hare that was whiterthan the snow and only gave itself away with black ears and eyes. It satright outside of the Studies Centre and ate some twigs. Alhtough that isthe only live animal I've seen, there are tracks all around in the snow.The ptarmigan tracks are incredible. On the hard snow you can see theindividual claws, the tail, and sometimes even marks from their wings.
Apart from the white, brown, and green that makes up most of thelandscape, the only real color is from lichen on the rocks. Although thismay not sound very impressive, the color of the orange lichen is intenseand stands out dramatically from the dull surroundings. Today was cloudyand snowy, and so everything was white -- the trees seemed to fade intothe background and turn gray.In the midst of this world I am busy at work in the kitchen of the StudiesCentre baking cakes, making crumble, and, most importantly, washingdishes. I have also been working in the office doing some computer work.Today, for a little variety, I went with the science technician to measurethe geomagnetic declination and inclination (which, as I understand it, isthe difference between true north and magnetic north). In Churchill thetwo are very similar, unlike other areas. The Studies Centre is one ofabout 12 stations around Canada with this equipment, and they take thisdata so that maps telling the declination of all areas can be updated,since the numbers are constantly shifting. I felt very official takingthis information down (we had to do the same thing four times, make surethe equipment was all balanced, and make sure we had no metal on us).
The people here are great; the food is, well, it's Churchill and thinkabout shipping food up here....
I'll e-mail again once the Earthwatch Program has started and I startdigging in the snow.
I would love to hear from you all!


p.s. Mary Jane -- could you circulate this throughout the school? Thanks.

Hello all!I'll start with some exciting events that happened since my last e-mail.
I have seen a ptarmigan! I was walking down a road (if you can call itthat...huge drifts usually cover everything but two rows of bushes oneither side) and the white and brown bird flew from right next to me awayto nearby trees. I decided to follow it, but on taking one step off ofthe road I found myself waist-deep in snow. The ptarmigan was viewed from a distance.I have added a mode of transportation to my list: bombadier. It is a combination of submarine (with round windows), tank, and snowmobile...hard to describe.I have stood on Hudson Bay, and not only that, I have stood in the NunavutTerritory. The land around here is in Manitoba, but once on the ice whereI was, it is Nunavut Territory. The ice is amazing on the Churchill Riverand the bay. There are lots of rocks beneath both bodies of water, and sowhen the tide goes out, the ice crashes into the rocks and forms thesehuge mountains of ice. The mounds are taller than a person and made up ofcomplicated ice wedges and formations.
I have tasted muskox and arctic char. The arctic char was delicious, and the muskox was tough and pretty disgusting...what can you expect from amuskox?So, the Earthwatch program started last night, which means I am out of thekitchen and into the cold. As a basic overview, the point of the projectis to create a baseline set of data that later groups can use to compareto. There is no way we can have proof of climate change and itsenvironmental impacts without having some reference point. To establishthis reference point thes project includes every season and usuallyinvolves many different aspects (soil, permafrost, wind, temperature,producers, consumers, etc.), but in the winter the snow is really thedominating feature. So, we are mainly focused on analyzing snow at manydifferent sites.This morning we started bright and early with a tutorial so that we wouldknow what to do once we were out digging our snow pits. There is so much cool scientific equipment -- RAM penetrometers, Adirondack snow corers, density shovels, snow crystal charts, and much more. So by lunch we had a vague idea of what we had to do once we got out there, but it was still a little hazy...Not so anymore! After an afternoon with two complete snow pits, I know how to operate all the cool stuff. The hard part is operating them when theaverage temperature without the wind chill is 25 below (Celcius...yes, I'min Canada). Basically, we dig a snow pit so that there is a flat surfacefrom the top to the ground. Then, we do measurements and analysis of allof the different snow layers. One snow pit I dug today had four verydistinct different layers. On the bottom, the snow crystals have changedto form crystals like diamonds. In the middle there was a distinct icelayer, perhaps from the 20 minutes of rain they had here about one monthago. On the top, the snow is so fine that one crystal is usually .5 mmlong.
I stayed reasonably warm, although I think most of us had trouble keepingfeeling in our hands and feet. I wore every single winter layer I own,and I was glad for each and every layer. Goggles, face mask, neck warmer-- not one bit of skin was exposed! The hardest time to keep warm isduring the ride to and from the sites in a boxy sled thing pulled behind asnowmobile. I was never dangerously cold, so I think I'll be fine.Tomorrow we are out to the tundra site in the morning, and in theafternoon it looks like there is going to be a blizzard. So we'll seewhat happens.
Thanks to all of you who wrote back after the last e-mail! It's nice tohave some sort of contact with those of you down south...And, to VCS, have a great February vacation!!!



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