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'Pivoting' in Arctic Hydrology

'Pivoting' in Arctic Hydrology

by Kathy L. Young

Professor Kathy Young at Djúpalónssandur on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in Western Iceland

The pandemic has changed much in a very short time, and we have all had to adapt in myriad ways, large and small. The word that comes to my mind is “pivot”. Distilleries have pivoted from bottling gin to bottling hand sanitizer, fine-dining has shifted to make-it-yourself-dining, and live theatre exists only on screens now, much like our own universities with online lectures and Zoom meetings. After being asked a few days ago to write a short piece about my research, I thought about the many times I have had to ‘pivot’ in my research field of Arctic Hydrology. In this article, I focus on my reasons for shifting over to research in Iceland, a Low Arctic region, from the Canadian High Arctic and highlight some of the research findings that are now emerging from this hydrology ‘pivot’.

If you ever get the chance to work in the Canadian High Arctic, especially the Queen Elizabeth Islands, you will not want to work anywhere else! The pristine vistas, the fresh air, the friendly community members, and interactions with a diverse arctic science community are really beyond explanation. I have a double major in physical geography and biology from U of T. I was so fortunate to be able to be a botany field assistant to Clare de Freitas (still a good friend) at Alexandra Fiord, Ellesmere Island during the summer of 1984. We were supervised by Dr. Ray Cummings and Dr. Joseph Svoboda (U of T), a world renowned ecologist who was recently inducted into the Order of Canada.

I caught the ‘bug’ and I pivoted into Arctic research. I was again lucky with my mentors. I did my MSc under Dr. Antoni (Toni) Lewkowicz (Ottawa U, previously at U of T), who supervised my hydrology work on a late-lying snowbed, Melville Island. This ‘large’ snowbed (about 1 km long and 3-4 m deep) has now disappeared due to climate change but we were able to pump out about five scientific papers through my work there - not bad for a MSc student! Toni was a wonderful mentor and I learned so much about arctic logistics, technical matters, and the fortitude to keep on doing quality field work under extremely poor weather conditions.

Half way through my MSc work, I was offered another opportunity to pivot, this time to spend about four months in Southern China on a soil erosion project with the late Dr. Shiu Luk (U of T) and Dr. Ming-ko “Hok” Woo (Professor Emeritus, McMaster U). I jumped at the chance and now, I frequently look back at this extraordinary opportunity with much appreciation. There was extreme heat (+40ºC) and rainfall due to the monsoons but there was also wonderful food, and great friendships. I expanded my imagination and skill-set to adapt to the ever-changing conditions. I learned quickly that you can’t build runoff plots out of wood (termites will eat them) and how to do hydrology work without any equipment (it was held in Customs for two months). It truly is amazing what you can do with a stop watch and a bucket! Thank goodness for Hok Woo, who encouraged us to think ‘outside of the box’ in adapting to these ever changing situations and urged us to use the local markets to find and make equipment for our research.

Eastwind Lake, Ellesmere Island

As much as I loved working in Southern China, I yearned to return to the Canadian High Arctic. By another stroke of fortune, I was able to do my PhD work on slope hydrology and climate change at Hot Weather Creek, Ellesmere Island under Hok Woo, a foremost expert on Arctic Hydrology. I was also supervised by Dr. Sylvia Edlund, a botanist with the Geological Survey of Canada. Over the years here I was able to work alongside many renowned researchers, including Dr. Bea-Alt Taylor (an arctic climatologist), herself a true Canadian treasure.  

Flash-forward to my time at York U. As a professor of geography, my focus has been on enhancing my expertise on arctic snow and wetland hydrology and pivoting away from my doctoral research on slope hydrology. I have worked on arctic wetlands at a number of scales (local to the regional), and my snowcover/melt work has involved integration with remote sensing platforms and modelling.

Snow survey with students at Polar Bear Pass on Bathurst Island, Quikiqtaaluk, Nunavut

As I reminisce over the years, my most fun and productive time was during the International Polar Year (2007 to 2008). Canadian Arctic scientists really hit the jackpot then. We had access to considerable funding and logistics, and I was able to support and train numerous students at Polar Bear Pass, an extensive wetland on Bathurst Island and ramp up our knowledge on the climatology and hydrology of arctic wetlands, the biogeochemistry of arctic ponds, and the linkages between snowcover changes and streamflow. Costs for research here were no easy task as flights to the Canadian High Arctic were hovering around $4000/person at the time, and freight costs usually topped $15,000/year. Today flights to the Canadian Arctic can cost up to $8,000 per person and freight costs have likely increased as well. After the Polar Year, funding dropped off for Arctic science, but my involvement with ArcticNet, a Centre of Excellence, allowed my wetland research to proceed at Polar Bear Pass and I was able to work with exceptional scientists, among other, Drs. Warwick Vincent (Laval University), and Melissa Lafrenière and Scott Lamoureux (Queens University). 

Eventually, it became clear to me that my research in the Canadian High Arctic was becoming unsustainable due to the high logistic costs. My age was also creeping up on me; it was getting harder to schlep around 75lb boxes of gear through the snow, boxes that the young Twin Otter pilots loved to toss around to impress female students when delivering us to camp. It also wasn’t getting any easier to piling heavy ski-doos and ATVs onto the planes after long field seasons.

The volcanic eruptions of Eyjfjallajökull 2010 and Grímsvotn 2011 in Iceland presented another chance to pivot my arctic hydrology research. Lucky for me, I had contact in Iceland - Kristinn Guðjonson, a colleague and good friend who I worked with during my PhD years. In August 2011, Kristinn took York U undergrad Elizabeth Olah and me around Iceland in his 4x4 and into the interior of Iceland to show us the impact these volcanic eruptions had on the Icelandic landscape. It was incredible to see how the ash and dust had covered mountain snowbeds and slopes, and resulted in the desiccation of extensive mossy landscapes along the southern coastline. We visited a farmer living beside the biggest glacial outwash plain in the world. He was losing farmland to the frequent glacial floods coming through this plain, which were often triggered by volcanic eruptions lying beneath the nearby Vatnajökull glacier. Together with one of my recent MSc students (Harold-Alexis Scheffel), we were able to examine this problem, and this research has been recently accepted for publication in the journal Wetlands. The farmland (technically a coastal wetland) also lies against the expansive Laki lava field.  

Field camp in Iceland

Iceland has been an outstanding training ground for my graduate students. Aiesha Aggarwals’ recent MSc research on the diversity of water springs leading from the Laki lava field into this coastal wetland will be the focus of an invited paper to the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science, July 2021. Aiesha’s research has served to qualify and quantify the inputs of water into the wetland. D’Moi Keen’s ongoing MSc work on lava rise pits (large depressions in the Laki lava field) should also shed light on surface-groundwater interactions and the flow of water into these coastal wetlands. My pivot to Iceland has allowed me to continue my arctic wetland research more easily and cheaply. Unlike the Canadian High Arctic, flights to Iceland are cheap, and it helps there are roads, grocery stores, and most importantly, emergency response teams nearby to make field work safer and more accessible. Working in Iceland has helped me to renew long-time friendships and build new ones in the friendly Icelandic community. That said, while accommodation, food, drink, and good coffee are plentiful, they are not necessarily cheap, so small ‘pots of gold’ from York University and the Government of Canada through the Northern Student Training Program (NSTP) have been invaluable in supporting this research. There is one last benefit to working in Iceland – it is still possible to do research there. The pandemic has halted research in the Canadian High Arctic, but I have a student still working safely in Iceland.

In the future, my next pivot will be retirement focusing on being a grandmother. Eventually, when my grandchildren are a bit older, I hope to convince them to journey with me to the Canadian High Arctic so they too can experience what I have been so fortunate to enjoy through my career, stunning arctic landscapes, brightly lit in the summer sun, seemingly changeless and pure.