A few hundred metres below Storbreen Glacier, in the mountains of Jotunheimen National Park, Robert Way investigates the leftovers of 18th-century Norway. Clouds tumble into U-shaped valleys of pale emerald and spit a sharply chilled rain. The wind drives it sideways. Way shrugs to close the gap between collar and toque, then crouches amid a pile of jagged grey stones, pressing a Schmidt hammer to one of the few rust-coloured round rocks. The cloud cover cracks to admit a band of sunlight that instantly separates into a hazy rainbow. Ignoring it completely, Way scratches a reading into a damp notebook. Then he reapplies the tool to the stone.
Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic
There’s not much call for sightseeing in such harsh weather, especially when there’s work to do. Way is measuring surface hardness, read by the rebound of springs in the hammer, which resembles an old electric bread knife. It’s the job that University of Oslo professor Ole Humlum assigned him before departing for an errand involving a warm, dry van. The stones in the moraines of glacial debris left by Storbreen’s retreat will be softest here, given longer weathering. Higher up the slope, beyond a lawn of green moss and dwarf birch, stones in the next moraine, deposited in the 19th century, will be harder, as they will in each of the succeeding 10 or so moraines leading to the edge of the glacier.
This sort of fieldwork, on a cold August day, isn’t exactly what Way had envisioned when he signed up for an international student exchange program called Cryosphere Exchange back at the University of Ottawa, where he’s finishing an undergraduate degree in geography, with a minor in geomatics and spatial analysis. He’d rather be up on the surface of Storbreen, where Jon Ove Hagen, another University of Oslo prof involved in this week-long field component of CryoEX, has led a group of students to determine the net change in the glacier’s size. But Way’s shoes, a cheap pair picked up before leaving Ottawa a week ago, are so soft-soled, they threatened to ruin the crampons needed for the ice walk. So he crouches, hammers, records and doesn’t complain. “I like the cold,” says Way. “Where I come from, it’s all about the snow and ice.”
From Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L., the son of a father of Inuit descent and a mother from the Avalon Peninsula’s Irish Loop, Way represents the next generation of researchers focused on the snow, permafrost, glaciers, ice caps and river and lake ice of the polar regions. Taken together, these features form the terrestrial cryosphere, and despite the role that the cryosphere plays in the water and carbon cycles that influence climate change, it has been pushed out of the headlines by sea ice and warming polar waters.
In a sense, CryoEX exists to balance attention between land and ocean. The newly minted program was established by the Universities of Ottawa and Oslo, with Carleton University and Norway’s University Centre in Svalbard serving as satellite institutions. The curriculum is exclusively concerned with the coldest parts of the Earth’s crust. While Way’s home in Labrador offers plenty of research opportunities in this field, he came to Norway because he knows that polar science thrives through the cross-pollination of theories and research methods between nations. To succeed locally, you have to collaborate globally, which means starting with data collection in the wind and rain of unfamiliar territory.
But Way is also here to satisfy a desire to go where others have not. Before he leaves Norway at Christmas, he’ll travel to Svalbard, the country’s Arctic region. In February 2009, his studies took him to Antarctica. “It’s one of those places you can leave your mark on,” he says, noting that few people have been to both Antarctica and the Arctic in the same year. This remark may demonstrate the inflated sense of self-importance typical of a 20-year-old convinced that a promising career awaits, but it’s also evidence of the expeditionary spirit without which science cannot thrive. And if programs such as CryoEX can foster either attitude, they will put more of the world’s young and curious on paths toward enriching our understanding of the North, at home and abroad.
As easily as this story could be about climate change, it’s not. Not directly, anyway — though it’s hard to resist linking Way’s studies of the northern landscape with how the future will look. “The State of Polar Research,” a report released last February in conjunction with International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-08, declares that melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are contributing to rising sea levels. Also of “great societal relevance” are biodiversity loss, methane release from thawing permafrost and changing sea currents, to name just a few issues on which the International Council for Science and the World Meteorological Organization, both IPY sponsors, are calling for more research. With CryoEX, such issues, though important, remain peripheral.
As a whole, the contingent of 17 students and professors in Norway bears an apolitical quality. Individually, however, opinions on how the world should react to climate change fall along a well-defined continuum. On the left are Lars Elmkoer Hansen and Anna-Marie Chwastek, a pair of young Danes who work near Way in the rain, measuring lichen diameter. They hope for progress at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in December. On the right is Humlum, a physical geography professor and a renowned polar researcher who says data shows that CO2 has less of an impact on global warming than many people believe. Walking down the mountain after his last measurements at a moraine deposited around 1960, Storbreen sparkling turquoise behind him, Way says he doesn’t think Humlum is right but he’s willing to listen.
“I’m open to a good debate,” says Way before coming to a tumbling meltwater stream and hopscotching across on a few large stones. Still, he adds, accepting anthropogenic CO2 as the cause of Storbreen’s recent rapid shrinkage can’t cause any problems. “What’s the worst that can happen? We stop polluting so much?”
Bernd Etzelmüller, a professor in the University of Oslo’s department of geosciences, didn’t co-create CryoEX to attain game-changing conclusions. In part, it was to fulfill the IPY call for collaborative polar science. The best way to do that, he says, is to generate researchers with international experience.
Gathering 15 students from Canada, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Holland and the United States would have been much more difficult in the past, says Etzelmüller. When he arrived a decade ago from his native Germany to begin work on Norwegian permafrost, he was a pioneer in his field. Now, he says, “people understand you have to know what is happening with the permafrost, with the glaciers, to know what is happening with climate change.” So government funding has finally begun to flow.
CryoEX bridges the University of Oslo and the University of Ottawa — home base for the program’s other founder, geography professor and faculty of arts dean Antoni Lewkowicz — but funding comes only from the Norwegian Centre for International Cooperation in Higher Education. The case made in 2008 for securing 1.5 million Norwegian krone (roughly $280,000) over three years from the centre was strengthened, says Lewkowicz, by his co-operation with Etzelmüller to map Yukon permafrost in 2006. They had forged a link between institutions that do strong permafrost and glacier research, says Lewkowicz, noting that while there are similarities between Canada and Norway, there are also geographic differences that allow researchers from the two countries to learn from each other.
“IPY encouraged us to organize into formal and informal groups,” says Lewkowicz, to overcome “the limitations of individual researchers.” There was also the fact that Etzelmüller, who’d come to Canada on sabbatical, had research equipment that would have cost Lewkowicz $4,000 per week to rent for their map-making project, which was partially funded by IPY and will ultimately help predict how thawing will affect residents and industry in the Yukon. The Norwegian Centre recognized the spirit of collaboration and the value it could have if applied to students. “What they learn during this week, they don’t learn the whole semester reading books,” says Etzelmüller. “This may be the most important thing: to get the students into the field.”
A couple of days later, with data collection from Jotunheimen complete, the field party packs itself into two compact vans and heads east into the Norwegian interior. Etzelmüller has established a network of air and ground temperature-monitoring stations stretching hundreds of kilometres across the country, all of which have collected numbers in need of downloading — a perfect task for his eager army of researchers.
The convoy makes a brief stop at a station on the summit of Jetta, a moss-covered bump of a mountain. From there, it’s on to a century-old ski lodge at the foot of Tronfjell, the mountain looming over the village of Alvdal. Unlike Jetta’s rounded peak, Tronfjell’s rises high enough — 1,665 metres — to be inhospitable to vegetation and, at times, people. On the team’s first attempt to reach the summit by way of a steep single-track gravel road, it encounters a mist that limits visibility to about two metres. What’s more, there’s a wind powerful enough to make even breathing difficult, let alone standing. The students head back to the lodge, where Etzelmüller puts them to work packaging their Jotunheimen findings into short presentations for that evening.
The results are what you might expect of student work. Line graphs made by Way and the Danes show lichens growing smaller and rocks getting harder nearer the glacier, but a large number of outliers would have seasoned researchers suspecting flaws of technique rather than natural variability. Still, at CryoEX, it’s the experience that matters most.
For Way, that couldn’t be more true. Late that evening, over beer in one of the lodge’s pine-panelled common rooms, he delays preparations for the next day to sit and consider the value of the program, his short dark hair fashionably ruffled and a band of stubble lining his square jaw. “I came out here with the sense that I wanted this to be the thing that helped me decide what I wanted to do in life,” he says. “If I were back in Ottawa, I would have still been trying to figure out those sorts of questions.”
There’s an invariant sense of calm to Way. At 5-foot-10, with 170 pounds packed into a broad, solid build owing to years as both a goalie and a forward in the highest ranks of minor hockey, he moves across a room or a moraine no faster than necessary. He speaks the same way, without excessive enthusiasm, picking his words carefully and deliberately, as if they’re stone steps across a meltwater stream.
But it all adds up to a precocious sense of efficiency. The future can’t come fast enough for Way. With his course requirements satisfied, he resents that his undergraduate degree isn’t considered complete. Only electives remain, like a first-year English course. With palpable derision, he mentions the prospect of studying poetry.
Within two weeks of meeting him, and with the majority of Way’s semester in Norway still ahead on campus in Oslo, Etzelmüller has already recognized Way’s ambition. “He’s only 20 and a fourth-year student — it’s not normal,” says Etzelmüller. “If he has a goal to achieve, he will achieve that. He has both the capabilities and the background. He’s focused.”
With his sights set on a professorship in studies of the terrestrial cryosphere, Way believes he can make a contribution. “It’s not I feel I’m the integral part, that I’m some sort of missing link,” he says, then stresses the point. “I don’t feel that I’m going to be the tipping point, because I think that would be a little presumptuous. But I feel there are a few things I can contribute that other people wouldn’t.”
One of those things derives from his origins. Way comes from a middle-class family in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, which has a population of about 7,500. For years, his mother Brenda, now a newly elected town councillor, ran the hardware store started by her father. Way’s dad, George, is a crash rescue firefighter who passed along his Inuit heritage. Besides acknowledging that as the reason Labrador’s aboriginal Nunatsiavut Government covers his university tuition, Way doesn’t consider it a defining characteristic.
“It wasn’t something that really mattered,” says Way, who grew up playing hockey with Métis, Inuit and Innu kids. “You mixed with everyone, and it was like, ‘Yeah, I’m Inuit,’ but it’s not something that directly symbolizes who you are. Who you are is Labradorian, because you all have that common background whether you’re Métis, Inuit or Innu.”
His tie to Labrador might make Way’s contribution to polar science unique. One day, his studies complete, he’d like to return home. And his pride in the place comes out in his frustration about how little anyone, including him, knows about it. The Torngat Mountains at Labrador’s northern tip are the site of mainland Canada’s only glaciers east of the Rockies, and he’s not convinced they’ve received enough attention. “Here, in Norway, we’re studying glacier geomorphology all throughout the country,” says Way. “I would love to do this sort of stuff back in Labrador. It would be very interesting.” In other words, for this young person looking to leave his mark in the world of northern research, there may, in fact, be no place like home.
The morning after the students’ presentations, the CryoEX group heads back up Tronfjell. The wind has slowed to a breeze, and the mist has lifted, but the air retains a numbing chill. For Etzelmüller, it’s a perfect day to repair a weather station that, until recently, had been steadily transmitting data back to Oslo. He recruits a couple of students for the job, then asks another group to pound 45-centimetre-long steel rods into the ground and connect them to a power supply. Run a current through them — just as Lewkowicz and Etzelmüller did in the Canadian North — and the resistance it meets as it penetrates the ground generates a map of the permafrost below. Water conducts electricity nicely; ice, less so.
Etzelmüller leaves Way with Humlum’s group, which is heading into a jagged field of grey bedrock cracked by millennia of freeze-thaw cycles. Its goal is to locate evidence of glacial movement back when this was an icefield. The buried bases of large outcroppings of rock should bear striae, parallel scars carved by the grit carried in ancient ice. With a knee-high expedition shovel, Way cuts out a few wedges of dark silt at the first site. Nothing. Humlum directs the students to a new site, and they repeat the process, with the same results. “It’s disappointing,” Humlum tells them, “but it’s positive evidence.” That is, if there was ice here, it likely didn’t budge. Perhaps farther down the mountainside, where warmer temperatures might have promoted glacial movement, there will be something. He selects another site, then heads down the rocky slope they’ll be digging into for most of the day — their last in the field before heading back to Oslo.
With IPY’s field seasons over, Lewkowicz hopes polar research can be sustained until the next IPY arrives to reinvigorate the field with another international injection of funding. If there is an interim stage of activity, it may be Way and his CryoEX colleagues gathered from around the world on the side of this Norwegian mountain, breaking ground no one has broken before. Their assignment may seem unimportant, but going forward in their careers, it represents the fundamental necessity of ground-level investigation. How did millennia of global warming shape this place? Can those facts tell us about the future? Let this kind of science falter, says Etzelmüller, and the legacy for upcoming generations is ignorance and negligence — perhaps worse. “That’s why basic research is important,” he says.
Way is here to develop his sense of scientific objectivity. But he knows the political implications of interpreting findings as simple as scratches on stone. “There is a sense of morality among individuals in this field, certainly,” he says. “I have a sense of morality on the environmental issues.” When it comes to causes of climate change, however, “a lot of people aren’t willing to hear one side or the other,” he says, “whereas I’m still at the point where, if you have a convincing argument, fine, I’d like to hear it.”
That he’ll listen is what matters. Humlum remains quietly unconvinced that current climate variations are not anomalous. “We need to know more of the past climatic data in greater detail,” he says as he continues to scout potential stria sites. That need to know more cuts through the politics of any climate-change debate, and it captures the spirit of CryoEX. Science has an insatiable appetite for facts that ultimately go on to furnish innumerable permutations of truth. Already, Way seems to understand his role in this.
“Always maintain a healthy skepticism regarding scientific results,” says Etzelmüller, “because ideas that are believed to be correct today may be disproved in 50 or 100 years.”
After Way digs out the next site, the students gather close to the rock face, one of them washing the surface with water collected from a nearby shallow pool. Independent of their professor, they debate whether they’re seeing ancient scars or just natural fissures before they decide on the latter. In the meantime, Humlum has found another spot down the mountain. The sun’s coming out, shining on the village of Alvdal far below, but it has yet to warm the air. The students, Way included, look cold and weary. They could easily guess at what they’ll find at Humlum’s next location. But they understand that unless they investigate, they won’t know anything for sure.