A long trip through the Arctic for a rare bird

“You’re crazy. No one goes up there”

Dave Critchley spent his summer vacation in a way that few would consider a vacation.

For one reason, it was a lot of work. For six weeks beginning in May, the chair of NAIT’s Biological Sciences Technology – Conservation Biology program pulled a 70-kilogram sled as he and two colleagues skied across central Ellesmere Island, Canada’s northernmost Arctic island. By the trip’s end, they’d cover nearly 250 kilometres, some days skiing two hours, some days 10.

For another reason, as the sled-pulling suggests, it was snowy and often seriously cold.

The team stopped in Resolute Bay on nearby Cornwallis Island, where they’d caught a charter flight to carry on. Summers in the northern hamlet might get as warm as 8 C; winters sit between -20 and -40. Where Critchley and company were headed, 600 kilometres northeast, they wouldn’t see a day warmer than -15. Occasionally, they’d be tentbound by blizzards.

resolute bay

“You’re crazy,” they were told by intrigued Resolute residents. “Nobody goes up there.”

For Critchley (Biological Sciences Technology – Renewable Resources ’98, Forest Technology ’99), isolation was part of the appeal.

“It’s conceivable we were in places no human has walked or skied to,” he tells me as we sit in a NAIT cafeteria a few weeks after his return. On a laptop, he scrolls through images of blinding, white landscapes interrupted by mountains and faint lines that are actually hidden glacial crevasses.

“I loved it. It’s this inhospitable, harsh, yet vast and beautiful area. It’s so peaceful and serene.”

But peace and serenity weren’t the draw. This was a working holiday. Critchley and friends and frequent expedition partners Greg Horne and Louise Jarry were on an independent research expedition they hoped would make the often inaccessible nature of Arctic science relatable. They were going in search of a rare bird, one they hoped would capture the attention of those of us outside of academia.

It’s this inhospitable, harsh, yet vast and beautiful area.

For Arctic conservation, and for the way the planet depends on the ecological integrity of the region, adventurous approaches to research are increasingly important. They may be fun (by Critchley’s definition), but they’re also fundamental to trying to understand a part of the world that is rapidly changing, and to encouraging others to join in the effort.

“I can’t go on a trip just to go on a trip,” says Critchley. Not entirely, at least. On his laptop, he flips to another shot. It’s a selfie of him, Horne and Jarry taken with a waterproof camera submerged in a seal hole. They’re framed in a halo of ice and beaming wide grins.

“Nothing but good times,” says Critchley.

Canary above the timberline

ellesmere island

According to Canada’s Changing Climate Report, Northern Canada is like a greenhouse within the greenhouse that is Earth. It’s warming roughly three times as fast as the rest of the planet, with an increase in annual temperature of 2.3 C since 1948.

This means diminished sea ice, for one thing, which in turn means less wildlife habitat, breaking a food chain in a place where a grocery “supercentre” would seem almost mythically convenient. The ice and snow also act like a planetary air conditioner, reflecting light and heat back into space. Without it, there will be even greater climate destabilization.

Such changes will be felt globally. As northern land-ice melts, it adds 14,000 tonnes of water to the ocean every second, contributing to a rise in sea level that could reach 65 centimetres by 2100. That's enough to submerge coastal cities including Osaka, Rio de Janeiro and Miami. What’s more, as the ice melts and water redistributes, the weight of the pole decreases in relation to its southern counterpart, threatening to literally throw the planet off kilter.

Changes will be felt globally.

The Arctic may be remote, but it demands as much study and attention as possible.

Critchley, Horne and Jarry contributed by focusing mostly on that rare bird, the ivory gull. Factors including pollution and climate change caused it to be enlisted as endangered in Canada in 2006, with a decreasing global population estimated at 38,000 to 52,000. The birds summer in the high Arctic, nesting in cliffs. Historically, several colonies had been identified on Ellesmere Island.

Some, including northern Indigenous peoples, consider the gull to be a kind of canary above the timberline.

ivory gull“The Inuit regard this species with great affection, and appear to consider its decline in Canada as an ominous indicator of a greater systemic ill in the northern environment,” wrote the authors of a 2006 paper.

“We never saw a single ivory gull,” Critchley says.

Since the trip cost more than $100,000, that may sound like a disaster. But the lack of a sighting is still an important result. According to that 2006 paper, it’s possible that the melting of sea ice represents habitat degradation that affects feeding and wintering habits of polar marine birds, including the ivory gull.

That is, what we feared has possibly already come to pass.

The other important result is that Critchley, Horne and Jarry have shown that it’s entirely possible to periodically check in. By mounting a self-supported expedition, the trio helped take the frozen edge off the Arctic’s deadly reputation. Properly trained and outfitted, researchers can survive its most inhospitable regions and return to tell the tale – one that needs telling more than ever.

How to prepare for an extreme Arctic adventure

dave critchley on ellesmere island

Planning for the trip began around 2016. Critchley and Horne were casually chatting about possible Arctic destinations. For the frequent expedition partners, beaten paths tend to lead to boredom. In fact, their love of combining adventure and conservation science has seen both named as fellows of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, placing them among the likes of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and astronaut Steve MacLean.

Over the years, for example, a fascination with bats has led them through caves in Alberta and the Northwest Territories’ Nahanni National Park Reserve. The work they did gathering habitat data such as temperature, humidity, and species presence has made them leaders in the crusade to protect bats from white nose syndrome, a disease that has wiped out populations across North America.

The idea for going further north bore similar motivations. The ivory gull is susceptible to factors including hunting, pollution and climate change, and Horne knew about it from previous Arctic trips. Both agreed that investigating habitat on Ellesmere Island would make a perfect project. It would also fill a knowledge gap, as colonies had not been checked in nearly a decade.

In 2017, Mark Mallory, an environmental scientist at Acadia University and a leading expert on the ivory gull, granted Horne’s request for a reference letter to attract expedition sponsors.

camp on ellesmere island

A little help from his friends

During the year before Critchley left for his Arctic research trip, he also had help from Personal Fitness Trainer students who coached him through rehabilitative exercises after back surgery last year.

Then there was the matter of snacks.

While criss-crossing icefields riddled with crevasses, some wide enough to swallow a house, Critchley and his team burned thousands of calories each day. This called for meals packed with healthy fats and protein, including a key staple from the campus’s Retail Meat Store.

“We ate their beef jerky the whole trip,” says Critchley.

The trip was also backed by corporate sponsors who provided everything from cookware to charter flights, including Aiquille, Arc’teryx, Campers Village, Canada Goose, DJI, Idea Wild, Kenn Borek Air, MEC, Multirotorheli, NorthFace, Sea to Summit, Track ’n Trail, PolarPro, Polar Supplies and more.

“It would be a great asset in the challenging monitoring of this species if Greg and his team could count some of them,” wrote Mallory, who’d visited the region in 2009. “Quite frankly, even presence/absence [information] would very valuable … [to] the international community trying to monitor and conserve this species.”

One reason that counts are infrequently done – beside the extraordinary expense of Arctic travel – is that they require highly specialized skills. In Critchley’s case, one of those was sewing.

Almost all aspects of preparations for the Ellesmere trip were customized. Team members built the sleds they’d pull between colony sites, cut and stitched covers for them, and even sewed fur ruffs onto their hoods. Critchley tested his own handiwork near NAIT, pulling his sled up a local toboggan hill on evenings and weekends.

“Parents would show up with their kids and there’d be this weird loner dude walking up the hill,” he says. Young sledders would jump onto his rig for a ride to the top. During the week, Critchley trudged through NAIT corridors in ankle weights.

NAIT staff also played a part in making the expedition a success. When Critchley approached Tim Matthews about ideas on how to power gadgets such as drones, cameras, walkie-talkies, GPS and more, the Alternative Energy Technology program technologist said no off-the-shelf tech existed. They’d have to build some.

solar charging station for arctic expedition

In the week before Critchley’s departure, Matthews combined a small, foldable solar panel with parts he had in the lab to make a multi-device charging system.

“We had to make a bunch of guesses,” about how it would work in the cold, says the technologist. “We did have the advantage that he had 24 hours of sunlight, so we could afford to make a mistake or two.”

Nevertheless, without time to test his creation, Matthews was worried. Critchley, he notes, was not. “Dave’s got ice water in his veins,” he says. “He’s totally cavalier about that stuff.”

“Dave’s got ice water in his veins.”

He was right to be. The charger worked perfectly, helped by the fact that Critchley spent the nights with batteries in his sleeping bag to keep them warm so they’d power up faster.

Uncertainty and opportunity

drone in arcticCritchley doesn’t know why they saw no ivory gulls on Ellesmere Island. Maybe it was the wrong time of year. Maybe climate change somehow excluded them from the area. Maybe the birds were spooked by predators like Arctic foxes or ravens (from tracks, Critchley thinks there was a polar bear in the area, and that it may have followed the skiers).

When asked why it really matters if a relatively obscure bird goes unaccounted for, Critchley acknowledges that its importance can be tough to comprehend.

“It’s one species,” he says. “How many are going extinct every day on the planet?”

But he tacks a challenge onto that question. To him, any animal’s extinction has to be treated like a domino that could trigger disaster. “We don’t know the next species to be endangered. Is it going to be something that’s a tipping point for human society? Is it a loss that we can’t replace and it’s ultimately going to mean our demise?”

With that in mind, Critchley and the team produced data that researchers such as Mallory can use to answer outstanding questions and even predict where the birds might be found in the future. Their high-resolution drone footage, for example, is unique and precious. “For the ivory gull in particular, there is no data except ours,” says Critchley.

More importantly, the trio opened a door to a greater understanding of the Arctic and perhaps other threatened ecosystems. Critchley is eager to share their findings with the academic community, but he’s even more interested in using it to get others involved.

“We don’t know the next species to be endangered. Is it going to be something that’s a tipping point for human society?”

“The worst thing that we do as scientists is not connect [our findings] to the public,” he says. “We make these wonderful sets of data, send it all out and nobody can make sense of what it means. If you can convert that into something that can be part of a conversation, it has value.”

Critchley envisions having that conversation with Arctic communities, where residents might be encouraged to report sightings of the gulls or other species. He also sees that conversation happening at NAIT, where he’ll share aspects of his trip with students.

skiing on ellesmere island

Critchley knows that few students will leave NAIT and head for the high Arctic, but he also knows that the complexity and vulnerability of the global ecosystem mean that any ambitions he might foster with respect to conservation will go to good use. As the World Resources Institute has stated: “Scientists have a better understanding of how many stars there are in the galaxy than how many species there are on Earth.”

“Something I tell all my students is, ‘Say yes to opportunity,’” says Critchley. He laughs when he thinks about where saying ‘yes’ to Horne in 2016 led him, and the fact that he did not know precisely what he was signing up for at the time.

“Something I tell all my students is, ‘Say yes to opportunity.’”

Ultimately, such uncertainty is the opportunity. Critchley can’t come to a conclusion about the ivory gull any more than he can about the future of the Arctic. What he can say, after six weeks of taking in sights and sounds in a place that few people ever see but upon which everyone depends, the Arctic is now slightly less unknown. He considers that progress.

“It’s another piece of data that adds to the jigsaw puzzle – and as ecologists that’s all we can really ask for these days.”

selfie through a seal hole in the arctic

“I want to be able to say that I tried to improve the world”

Matthew Cunningham (Biological Sciences Technology – Renewable Resources ’18) and Kaela Walton-Sather (class of ’17) recall the impact that stories of adventure and investigation had on the direction of their own careers as conservation biologists.

Seeing the work Critchley had done during previous expeditions, “shows you where you can go with this,” says Walton-Sather. As a research technician with NAIT’s Centre for Boreal Research in Peace River, she now works on anything from plant propagation to tailings remediation. “I want to be able to say that I tried to improve the world around me. It’s why I chose this path.”

A fisheries researcher with the University of Alberta, Cunningham feels that improvement can come from following Critchley’s lead in trying to share as much information with the public as possible. While Walton-Sather’s hands tend to be dirty, Cunningham’s are wet from investigating fish populations throughout Alberta.

“The more field work that gets done, the more we know about our province,” he says. To him, data is a powerful tool when facing environmental challenges. The more we have, “the easier it will be for us to change things.”

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