Tlicho Summer Student Research Assistant Program 2014

The Barrenlands in the Daring Lake area are rich in natural beauty, diverse wildlife, and human history.  Situated in the low Arctic, they provide the perfect setting for northern research—and for young Northerners to see firsthand how studies into climate change and other topics are carried out. 

For the second summer, two Tłı̨chǫ students have worked alongside university researchers at the Tundra Ecosystem Research Station at Daring Lake, 300 km north of Yellowknife.  Students Roman Lamouelle and Susan Machan participated in the Tłı̨chǫ Summer Student Research Assistant Program (TSSRAP), a joint initiative of the WRRB and Environment and Natural Resources (ENR), GNWT, funded by the Aurora Research Institute.   

Through their photos, Roman and Susan show us their experiences this summer –from working with and learning from friendly university researchers, most of whom are just a few years older than they are, to taking in the landscape and its clear blue lakes and dramatic eskers, to seeing the sun reflect off the lake and experiencing the peacefulness of the land.   Roman is also working on a video based on his interviews with researchers at Daring Lake, about their research projects and their education and career paths.  He hopes to show his video to other students to inspire others to try different things:  “I want them to experience what’s next in life,” he says.  “Don’t wait for it.  Stand up and do it.” 

"It's a fun situation, putting a bunch of 20-year-olds together on the tundra." - Susan Machan

Many of the research projects at Daring Lake are climate change studies on plant growth, reproduction and timing of events in the plants’ life cycles.  Related projects are investigating changes in plant communities on the tundra as temperatures rise and species like Dwarf Birch shrubs are becoming more abundant.

As research assistants, Roman and Susan checked sensors, hauled equipment to sample sites, including in Roman’s case, an inflatable dingy used to get out into small tundra lakes to measure water temperatures, took measurements of permafrost depth and ground temperatures once a week at 2cm, 5c, and 10 cm intervals at six sample sites, and recorded data.  Roman jokes about counting 150 leaves for one researcher’s studies on shrubs and changes in vegetation communities on the tundra.  While fieldwork can be repetitive, the real magic, one researcher told Susan, happens when a researcher looks at the data and does the calculations. 

Susan helped one researcher with her permafrost studies, taking measurements of active layer depth, for example, and soil moisture.  She assisted with 63 “point frame plots” at three sample sites. 

Both Roman and Susan appreciated the time researchers spent answering their questions and explaining why various measurements were being taken.  They were impressed too by the researchers’ passion for their studies. 

Students in the TSSRAP not only assist researchers in the field and in the lab, but also participate in ENR’s 10-day Tundra Science and Culture Camp, where they learn about the tundra environment from different disciplines and perspectives –ecology, ornithology, archaeology, geology, and human history.   Roman really enjoyed learning about archaeology at the camp and visiting archaeological sites –several within 4 km of the research station.  Archaeologist Tom Andrew showed the students tent circles—rings of large rocks that were used in the past to hold caribou hide tents in place—evidence of traditional use of the area by Tłı̨chǫ, Yellowknives Dene, Métis and Inuit people. 

Roman chose to study traditional trails for his project during the science and culture camp and discovered that elders had chosen routes to follow animals such as caribou or to travel to fishing grounds by canoe.  For her project, Susan assisted on a live trapping project, setting up six live traps near the research station and six by an esker a 10 minute walk from camp.

There are challenges living and working at a remote field research station on the Barrens.  The bugs can be “terrible” according to Roman, but the “thousands of blueberries” that carpeted the tundra landscape and distracted Roman so he fell behind on a 15 km hike, are just one of the rewards.  Swimming in cool tundra waters, especially in one lake nicknamed the Olympic Pool, was “magnificent”, in Roman's words. He caught six Lake Trout in very “cool, pristine water” and attributes his success to having a “trick up his sleeve” and he’s not telling.   Susan caught her very first fish, a Lake Trout, and learned how to bead from elder Dora Nitsiza, something she had always wanted to learn.  

There were many opportunities to see wildlife.  During the month of July he spent at Daring Lake, Roman saw foxes, ground squirrels, two moose, an abandoned wolf den, and caribou tracks.   There for the month of August when the caribou return to the area, Susan was lucky to see eight caribou during the latter part of her stay –six caribou off in the distance one day and a cow and calf on another day.  She also saw red-backed voles, foxes and their kits, a lemming, and a ground squirrel nicknamed Martin which sneaked into the kitchen and got into the oats!  (See photo of this mischievous villain in the Photo Gallery at the end of the article)

Their experiences this summer have benefited them in planning for the future. Susan says, “ It has prepared me for what to expect.  I know now I want to go into an environmental career.  Right now I’m concentrating on geology and they need people to set up operations correctly –and people who care about the earth too.”  Roman’s interests lie in the outdoors, and he values his hunting, fishing and on-the-land skills.  He may get a pilot’s licence one day and is exploring different careers, including being a ranger.  

What advice do they have for future summer students at the Tundra Ecosystem Research Station?  Being prepared to help the researchers, having a positive attitude and a genuine interest in science are all helpful in making the experience a rewarding one. It’s also very important to be careful with equipment because it’s too hard to replace and to not take the data being recorded too lightly “because it means a lot to researchers”, Susan notes.   Expect any weather and bring a good backpack, they recommend, along with a raincoat, water bottle, and a good camera,  and definitely a bug jacket...the zipped up kind is best!

Here is more information about climate change studies at the Tundra Ecosystem Research Station:

Climate Change Studies and Carbon Balance on the Tundra

An important research focus at the Research Station is observing the tundra carbon cycle in a changing climate.  Daring Lake is one location in a global network of research sites that scientists are monitoring to better understand any impacts climate changes might have on carbon cycle processes.

Carbon is frozen deep in the Arctic permafrost.  As long as the Carbon remains frozen, it will stay in the permafrost, but there is concern that with global warming and permafrost thaws, some of the Carbon in the permafrost could escape to the atmosphere as Carbon dioxide or methane, and could make the earth’s climate warm up even more. 

Researchers are studying permafrost to understand more about how it acts.  The tundra has a thin active layer that thaws in summer.  Below the active layer is permanently frozen ground –permafrost.  Is the ground freezing as deeply and the permafrost layer underneath becoming thinner?  Changes in permafrost affect how plants grown and how Carbon and water cycle through the environment. 

Scientists are investigating Carbon exchanges among tundra plants, the soil and the atmosphere.  Carbon moves from the air into plants, into the ground, and then back into the air.  The complete Carbon cycle is made up of “sources” that put Carbon back into the environment and “sinks” that absorb and store Carbon.  Right now, the Arctic takes up more Carbon than it releases, acting as a Carbon “sink”.  But how might the current “Carbon budget” of this landscape be affected by short-term weather and long-term climate change?