By Hannah Marshall
Earthwatch volunteers have a variety of reasons for joining expeditions – from a desire for meaningful travel to an interest in science to a passion for the planet. One incredibly valuable group of volunteers are community fellows, local people invited by the scientists to participate in the project. This program, which is supported by generous donors, enables members of the community to actively engage with the research and conservation activities. This program not only helps to build understanding and partnerships between the scientists and the community, but exposes fellows to ways they can incorporate their experience in their daily lives and workplaces.
Since 2000, Earthwatch volunteers from around the world have contributed to field research at a project in Churchill, Manitoba. Churchill perches on the seacoast within the Hudson Bay Lowlands, North America’s largest wetland. The area’s most famous inhabitants are its some 57,000 beluga whales and 1,000 polar bears, earning itself the nickname “the polar bear capital of the world.”
This year for the first time, thanks to the support of The Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, three members of the local community were provided with the funding to participate on the expedition. Prince Albert II of Monaco has a personal interest in the Arctic and has promoted the need to develop The High North in a sustainable way. Prince Albert II’s great great grandfather, Prince Albert I, undertook a number of scientific expeditions to the Arctic, and lent his support, in some cases through gifts or loans of oceanographic instruments, to numerous Arctic and Antarctic explorers.
Over the next few decades, scientists expect to observe the greatest effects of global warming at high latitudes.
Permafrost underlies 24% of the land surface of the Earth and holds about 50% of the world’s terrestrial carbon (the carbon stored in soil and plants). As temperatures rise and the permafrost thaws, organic compounds begin to decompose, producing carbon dioxide and methane. The release of these greenhouse gases amplifies the effects of global warming. Arctic landscapes will change, and the current plant and animal residents may find themselves unable to adapt.
These shifts in the Arctic will change life for every species there—including humans. That’s why researchers, led by Principal Investigators Dr. LeeAnn Fishback and Dr. Steve Mamet at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC) are working hard to understand exactly how these northern Canadian lands and species work together now. The community fellows selected to take part were Barbara Chevre, Sarah Robinson and Matthew Webb. These fellows joined Dr. Fishback, Dr. Mamet, and a number of other Earthwatch volunteers at the CNSC in February 2015.
Volunteers not only support their data collection, they provide meaning and purpose for their work. In Churchill, volunteers have enabled scientists to paint one of the clearest pictures of climate change in the Arctic, so that we can better understand the changes that will eventually take place in our own backyard. The community fellows helped with the research in a number of ways both inside and outside, they took a series of snow samples from the snowpits, the treeline and a tree island.
Here are a few comments from the community fellows themselves:
“I don’t have a scientific background although I have worked in a scientific company before…my contribution to Earthwatch has been my first experience where I actually help science by doing science. I am now convinced everyone can contribute to science.” – Barbara Chevre
“Involvement with this project has shown me that we should maintain funding for projects that collect long term data, and in my work and as a voter, I now look for opportunities to make that happen.” – Sarah Robinson
“I was able to establish friendships with many of the team members and it has helped me broaden my connections worldwide. I really enjoyed meeting new people from all different walks of life from across the globe.” – Matthew Webb
The volunteers also praised the support of Dr. Fishback and Dr. Mamet.
“The best thing about this experience is how LeeAnn, Steve and the rest of the staff ensure that everyone gets to experience as much as possible…It’s certainly not every day that you can sample in snow pits during the day, and then tend to the making of an igloo under northern lights after dark.” – Sarah Robinson
Community fellows are an important part of Earthwatch expeditions. The programme enables local communities to engage directly with the research and it enables scientists to complete their important data collection work. The fellows gain new skills and experiences and they help to provide the other Earthwatch volunteers and scientists with an enriched local experience through their knowledge of the local area.
The funding from The Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation will continue for the next two years, enabling more members of the local community in Churchill to take part in this important project.