Log In

Reset Password

Cerra’s wild ride into the Canadian Northwest

First Prev 1 2 3 4 Next Last
Cerra Simmons with one of the flux towers at the Tundra Ecosystem Research Station in the Northwest Territories (Photograph supplied)

Her first plane ride into the Northwest Territories of Canada is likely one that Cerra Simmons will never forget.

It was May, and the weather was a lot warmer than is typical for that region at that time of year; the Twin Otter, the tiny plane that carried her in, was prepped with skis for snow.

“It was a little scary when we landed because all the snow that had been on top of the ice had melted,” she said. “When we landed on the skis, it actually felt like we were landing on water, and it was spraying everywhere.”

The experience was especially interesting considering the purpose of her visit: climate research.

Cerra was selected by Peter Lafleur, a professor at Trent University, to aid work he’d been doing for 20 years at the Tundra Ecosystem Research Station at Daring Lake.

“We have lots of data to look back on and compare in terms of trends, specifically the things that we've been looking at here and how the tundra interacts with the environment,” Cerra said.

“The specific exchange of the heat and the energy and the water at a bedrock site is something that we don't really know a lot about. So that's why [I was out there], hoping to characterise those relationships so that we have a better understanding.”

The 21-year-old, who enters her final year at Trent next month, got involved because the climate change reading course she’d signed up for got cancelled at the last minute.

“I came across this placement course at the Trent School of the Environment and it allows the student, if they're picked for it, to choose an organisation in the community or supervisor within the school to work for and gain experience from.”

An aerial view of the Tundra Ecosystem Research Station in the Northwest Territories (Photograph supplied)

Cerra had heard about the Trent Climate Station and thought it would be “awesome” if she could get a slot. As it turned out Dr Lafleur was looking for a student to help to sift through three decades of climate data in Peterborough, a city about 80 miles northeast of Toronto.

“Near the end of my placement, he approached me and asked if I was interested in being his research assistant for the summer.”

The task she was given at Daring Lake was to maintain flux towers, objects that “continuously measure gas exchange between the land surface and the atmosphere”.

“They’re basically the same as what we have in Peterborough, so I would be doing what I was doing in the [autumn]. Of course I accepted.”

She spent a week at the site in May and returned on July 4 for another six weeks. Cerra’s second arrival, this time on a pontoon plane, was not so dramatic.

“It just lands straight on the water and motors up to the dock that we have here,” she explained.

Her interest in geography was inspired by a family trip to Alaska but took firm hold through her IB studies at BHS.

At Trent she discovered she enjoyed learning about climates and microclimates.

“And it just seems like such a prominent thing to be studying, I feel, especially in the wake of [the high world temperatures in July] and in the past years. It's really important that you have all hands on deck working in lots of different aspects of climates so eventually we can all come together with a bigger understanding.”

The faster thawing of the lake this spring wasn’t the only departure from the usual climate behaviour.

Researchers cleaning the methane gas analyser at a tower (Photograph supplied)

“When we came in May, that's typically when there’s still five feet of snow. We're in these quite large tents and typically, the doors are completely covered in snow. You have to really dig to get out,” Cerra said.

“This year when we got here there was only one or two feet of snow and a lot of the open tundra had these huge patches of grass and you could see the lichen and the moss and some of the leaves already starting to form. So even back in May we knew that this wasn’t a typical year.”

July was “super warm”. Temperatures were about 50F when she arrived, by the middle of the month they were in the high 80s.

“It was really, really warm but as we all know [July was] out of the ordinary. Usually they tell you to bring your puffer, your winter coat, just in case it gets really really cold, but it [didn’t].”

TERS sits on its own, about 186 miles north of Yellowknife, the capital and only city in the Northwest Territories. Cerra spent her six weeks with a student from Carleton University. Throughout their stay there were researchers from various organisations “coming and going”.

“It's honestly quite comfortable up here,” she told The Royal Gazette in an interview near the end of her stay. “We have no other kinds of camps around us. TERS was established in the Nineties so they've had quite a long time to beef up their system here.”

The tents are well heated in the winter, a solar panel system feeds all the generators, there is “satellite internet service that's pretty fast” and in the summer, there is running water.

“We’re really the only ones who use the lake, other than the fish and the other animals that use it. So we have a pump system that goes through a filter, and then we're just able to drink it or use it to shower, to wash dishes. The only thing we don't have in terms of creature comforts is a flushable toilet. Other than that, it's basically like living in any other city,” Cerra said.

Walks to flux towers were part of Cerra Simmons’s daily routine at the Tundra Ecosystem Research Station (Photograph supplied)

The flux towers are all within a 45-minute walk from the campsite. Apart from her work, a high point for Cerra was talking with the “many interesting people” that passed through about the research they were doing.

She is hopeful that her work will also make a difference, even if only in a small way.

“We're looking at, generally, the exchange of heat, water and energy at the site. And that tells us a lot about the Earth's surface and the atmosphere in that very small location and how they interact with each other. Because that's going to be a unique relationship in all the different places of the tundra,” Cerra said.

“So the goal of this research is to look at these relationships and try and identify if they're outside of the range that we were expecting and the range that we're seeing in the locations that are pretty close by.”

One observation is in keeping with the “shrubification of the North”, one of the “hypothesised effects of climate change”.

“It’s basically just the idea of the tree line, which is the general latitude where trees of a certain height stopped existing. And we're starting to think that that's gonna start going up, more northward,” Cerra said.

“But any work that is being done in the North is a step towards further understanding the landscape to a larger extent. Polar amplification is a concept that describes how polar regions are warming at rates close to two times faster than the rest of the planet. Ultimately, understanding the mechanisms that cause this is of great importance to the scientific community. However, the interrelationships in the North are, for the most part, outside of our range of understanding. Therefore, any new findings ultimately contribute to what we know about the Arctic in some way and have the potential to help the situation.”

Where her studies will take her, Cerra doesn’t yet know.

“The goal has been to go from here and go into catastrophe modelling, because that's something that I can apply to Bermuda and still kind of fulfil my passion for looking into the climate, predicting what might happen,” she said.

“I haven't looked at the data we've collected this summer so unless I find something like a niche that needs to be filled, I don't see my path in academia being much longer than this. But time will tell. My answer might be different in a couple of months.”

You must be Registered or to post comment or to vote.

Published August 10, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated August 11, 2023 at 8:10 am)

Cerra’s wild ride into the Canadian Northwest

What you
Need to
1. For a smooth experience with our commenting system we recommend that you use Internet Explorer 10 or higher, Firefox or Chrome Browsers. Additionally please clear both your browser's cache and cookies - How do I clear my cache and cookies?
2. Please respect the use of this community forum and its users.
3. Any poster that insults, threatens or verbally abuses another member, uses defamatory language, or deliberately disrupts discussions will be banned.
4. Users who violate the Terms of Service or any commenting rules will be banned.
5. Please stay on topic. "Trolling" to incite emotional responses and disrupt conversations will be deleted.
6. To understand further what is and isn't allowed and the actions we may take, please read our Terms of Service
7. To report breaches of the Terms of Service use the flag icon