Quirks & Quarks

July 02: Best of Quirks & Quarks - Summer Science Special

Whether it was canoeing on acid lakes, being bumped by belugas, or rescuing equipment from grizzlies, scientists across Canada were busy during the summer of 2021.

Scientists rescued equipment chewed by bears and shared the water with whales

A beluga surfaces for air as whale watchers head out in kayaks on the Churchill River in Churchill, Manitoba. Researchers spent the summer studying how beluga whale behaviour changes when humans are near. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

This episode originally aired September 11, 2021

For many Canadian field scientists, the summer of 2021 was when they got back to work. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted many research programs the previous summer, so researchers were eager to get back into travelling to remote locations across Canada to investigate and understand our vast, changing landscape.

Quirks & Quarks caught up with some of those scientists to find out what they did during their summer of science.

Visiting acid lakes in Ontario to investigate how they're recovering from acid rain

A half century ago, scientists discovered poisoned, lifeless lakes outside of Sudbury, Ontario, which helped bring the acid rain problem to the world's attention. 

Researcher Haley Moskal spent last summer studying those same lakes, to gather data on what is emerging as an environmental success story.

Haley Moskal, a master’s biology student at Laurentian University, retraced the work her supervisor did in Ontario's Killarney Provincial Park 25 years ago to document the recovery from acid rain pollution. (Genevieve Peck)

The discovery that pollution from smokestacks in Sudbury and the U.S. were creating acid rain and devastating freshwater ecosystems led to a public outcry. Politicians responded with regulations on emissions, starting in the 1980s, on both sides of the border. 

In the 1990s, John Gunn, a fisheries biologist at Laurentian University, visited the affected lakes again, and saw the very first indications that life was returning. 

This summer, he dispatched a third generation of researchers including Moskal, one of his students, to see how that recovery had progressed.

"From Dr. Gunn's time to my time, I thought,  you could really see the lakes were in recovery," said Moskal.

The lakes are nestled in quartzite ridges that are one billion years old. Moskal and her research partner hiked the rugged terrain, often bushwhacking their way from lake to lake, dragging canoes that had been left by researchers on previous expeditions.

Not every canoe that Haley Moskal, and her field research partner, Genevieve Peck, used to collect their biodiversity and water quality data was in tip-top shape. This had bear chew marks on the hull and was fixed with duct tape. (Haley Moskal)

But after a few decades in the woods, the canoes at their disposal "had some bear marks, some chew marks," said Moskal, "But other than that, they floated!"

Moskal said the return of life to these lakes should give us hope.

"If we've been able to control SO2 [sulphur dioxide] emissions and have this environmental recovery story from the horrors of acid rain, why can't we reduce fossil fuel pollutants, like CO2?"

Studying how whales and tourists interact in Northern Manitoba

Every summer, thousands of beluga whales can be found in the Churchill River estuary, at the mouth of Hudson Bay. Increasingly, they've been joined by whale watching boats full of curious tourists. And for the past three summers, biologists were also on the water, studying how the two groups interact.

A pod of beluga whales in the Churchill River. The whales flock to the river every year to feed, shed their skin, and give birth. (Build Films/Kristin Westdal)

In 2001, Kristin Westdal ran a small kayaking company on the Churchill River, and was one of the few operators in the area. The whales would often be as curious about the humans as the humans were about the whales.

"The belugas come right up to the boats," she said. "[They] will sort of rub up against the boats, or they'll even lift you a little bit out of the water and put you down."

"I remember having guests on the water who would actually start crying, and sometimes it was because they were scared, and sometimes it was because they were just so thrilled with the experience."

Field researchers Jessica Sportelli and Erica Gillis went out every day to observe how beluga behaviour changed around whale watching boats. (Jessica Sportelli)

After five years, as tourism in the area increased, she decided to sell the company to do research on the interactions between humans and whales in Canada's North. 

Now, Westdal is a PhD candidate at the University of Manitoba and field research director at Oceans North, a charitable organization focusing on ocean conservation. For the past three summers, Westdal's team of researchers went out onto the water every day to observe how the behaviour of the whales changed when humans were near. 

"We know that they're interested in the vessels, but is there any particular impact on them? Is there a particular age class that is more affected than another?" said Westdal.

"We have no idea what this area is going to look like 100, 200, 300 years from now. So we want to gather information and put protections in place while we can while this population is in good condition."

Retrieving equipment destroyed by grizzly bears on glacier in Northern B.C.

Two years ago Dan Shugar, a geoscientist from the University of Calgary, carefully placed a digital camera and an autonomous weather station on top of the Tweedsmuir Glacier in the northwest corner of B.C.

He fully expected to be back to retrieve his equipment and the data they'd collected the next summer. But because of the pandemic, that didn't happen.

So a year late, but still hopeful, he returned to the glacier, nestled in the imposing St. Elias mountains. 

The members of Shugar's research team had to travel to the glacier by helicopter. (Dan Shugar)

Glaciers around the world are melting, thinning, and moving at unprecedented rates in response to a warming climate. But the Tweedsmuir Glacier is even more dynamic than most. It's a "surge-type" glacier that periodically, for reasons researchers don't completely understand, suddenly advances down the valley toward the Alsek River canyon.

Here's how Shugar found a camera tripod and solar panel he had places to observe the Tweedsmuir Glacier, in the background of the image. Shugar suspects grizzly bears destroyed the equipment. (Dan Shugar)

In the past the glacier has advanced far enough to block the river, creating a vast lake until the ice melts and the dammed river is set free.

Shugar and his colleagues are trying to understand this process, and what impact it may have had on the landscape and the fisheries in the Alsek River, including whether it closed the migratory route for sockeye salmon into the Yukon.

Unfortunately they were not able to gather data on the glacier's dynamics because when they returned this summer, their gear was tangled and smashed and heavy anchor cables ripped free.

"The smoking gun were actual hairs embedded in the tripod of the weather station, " said Shugar, who believes those hairs belong to one or more curious grizzly bears. 

He said losing his equipment is just one of the risks that comes with doing this kind of work. Despite the disappointment, this summer was really about "reconnecting with my love of fieldwork," said Shugar. 

Investigating the impact of microplastic on freshwater ecosystems at a summer camp for scientists

Kennedy Bucci's summer was spent at the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), situated between Kenora and Dryden in northwestern Ontario, a unique outdoor laboratory where 58 freshwater lakes have been set aside for research. 

Bucci's project was part of a collaboration between a large group of scientists trying to understand the impact of microplastic on the life in lakes and rivers. Research in recent years has revealed that plastic is a ubiquitous contaminant in the environment, but we know very little about its impact on aquatic life.

An aerial view of the controlled enclosures at the Experimental Lakes Area. (Scott Higgins)

Her experiment involved setting up miniature ecosystems within a lake, which were basically large underwater aquariums filled  with fish, zooplankton and algae.  She and her team then added microplastic and over the course of the summer took samples of water and the organisms in their enclosures. Those samples will be analyzed in the lab to understand what impact the plastic is having. 

They already have some understanding of how different organisms would be exposed to the plastic. 

"The zooplankton and the fish would be ingesting the plastic," Bucci said. "Phytoplankton would potentially colonize the plastic, which means algae would grow on the surface of the plastic."

The ELA field site, said Bucci, had something of the feel of a summer camp this year. COVID protocols meant about 30 researchers had to remain sequestered in their bubble for months. 

"Luckily for us the Experimental Lakes is a beautiful area, so we were able to do a lot of canoe trips, some fishing trips, swimming, going to the beach when we weren't working," Bucci said. "We also had little events like a paint night, a tie-dye night, and we made friendship bracelets. It was pretty similar to a real summer camp."

More from this episode:

  • Rita Silva, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Quebec at Montreal spent her summer trying to understand what areas of Montreal experience the highest amounts of pollen.
  • Rebekah Persad, a master's student in biology at Trent University spent a chunk of her summer alone and lost in the dark, studying flying squirrels in Ontario's Kawartha Highlands. She was trying to better understand what they eat and how their diet impacts forest ecosystems.
  • Elliott Skierszkan, an environmental geoscientist at the University of Saskatchewan, spent his summer in the remote Dawson Mountain range, north of Whitehorse in the Yukon. He was trying to understand if hazardous amounts of the naturally-occurring elements arsenic and uranium are making their way into groundwater as a result of the thawing of permafrost. 



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