Quirks and Quarks

Our Summer in the Field special

For many of us, summer is the time for things like beaches, bike rides, and BBQs. For some scientists, however, summertime is also when they are at their busiest, travelling to remote locations to get up close and personal with nature.

We hear from scientists about their summer adventures doing fieldwork in remote locations

A polar bear is center frame, sniffing a metal post, with barbed wire extending out the sides. In the background is a sandy beach.
A polar bear investigates a hair snare trap, set up by researchers in the Eeyou Marine Region in James Bay. (Alexandra Langwieder)

Originally published on Sept. 10, 2022

For many of us, summer is the time for things like beaches, bike rides, and BBQs. For some scientists, however, summertime is also when they are at their busiest, travelling to remote locations to do science in the field. 

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

Discovering a B.C. sea star population unaffected by the mysterious wasting disease

Sea stars are one of the most beautiful creatures you might find if you're out for a beach walk at low tide. But your odds of finding one of these important predators on the Pacific coast today are not nearly as great as they were a decade ago. 

In 2013, a mysterious wasting disease began to wipe out sea stars from Mexico to Alaska. Scientists still don't know what was behind the die-off that killed up to 90 per cent of some sea star species, but it's certainly not for a lack of trying.

An undersea photo of a woman diving, looking at a coral reef. She has several sea stars already captured in a blue net.
Alyssa Gehman from the Hakai Institute and UBC is seen in this photo diving to survey sea star populations along the Pacific coast. (Derek Van Maanen/Hakai Institute)

Alyssa Gehman, a marine disease ecologist from the Hakai Institute and adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia, has been on the case for several years now. She's part of a team that surveys sea star populations along the coast and is investigating what might be behind the wasting disease.

On her research trips this summer, she came upon a site in one of her dives that she had no idea still existed: a thriving, healthy sea star community, seemingly untouched by the wasting disease, and she hopes investigating why they're unaffected might help her understand what happened to the Pacific coast better.

Prospecting for 10,000-year-old frozen squirrels in the Klondike

What appears to be a big hole in the mud at first glance, is actually an old ground squirrel nest from tens of thousands of years ago.
An arctic ground squirrel nest frozen in permafrost. (Duane Froese)

As gold miners in the Klondike cut through permafrost to get to gold-bearing gravel beneath, they expose the frozen landscape of the last ice age, including the remains of woolly mammoth, bison, wild Yukon horses, wolverines, lions and giant cave bears.

But paleontologist Scott Cocker is fascinated by the frozen remains of more humble creatures – ground squirrels and their frozen burrows, which he spent his summer collecting.

That's because these ice age rodents squirrelled away seeds, grasses and other plants, and even scavenged animal bones in their underground burrows. When preserved in permafrost, the burrows become time capsules of ice age biodiversity, allowing paleontologists to reconstruct the biodiversity of the landscape from tens of thousands of years ago.

Boating around James Bay to collect polar bear hair 

Researcher Alexandra Langwieder spent her summer boating over 1,200 kilometres around James Bay, setting up hair snares and camera stations to keep an eye on a unique population of polar bears.

"They're the farthest south of any polar bears in the world, they're actually closer to the latitude of Saskatoon," said Langwieder, a PhD student at McGill University's Department of Natural Resource Sciences.

"Part of our project is to figure out exactly what they are doing, because they're in this different environment," she said. "They're at the edge of the boreal forest and Arctic tundra, so they have access to a lot of different potential food items that the bears of the high Arctic don't."

Two polar bears walking across rocks, with one looking at the camera and the other looking straight ahead.
Two polar bears walk across the rocks in the Eeyou Marine Region of James Bay. (Alexandra Langwieder)

Because of the challenging coastlines in the Eeyou Marine Region of James Bay, and the widely dispersed population, these bears haven't been studied much in the past. Langwieder worked closely with the local Cree of Waskaganish, Eastmain, Wemindji and Chisasibi to design the project and navigate to the places where the bears can be found. 

But the communities had one major request — that the research was as non-invasive as possible.

"The communities that I'm working with had some ethical concerns about the methods that are usually used to study polar bears, so the whole capturing and collaring techniques," she said. So the team turned to hair snares and camera traps as a way of gathering information on the bears. 

"Hair snares are quite commonly used to study grizzly bears and black bears," she said. "From hair, you can get information about the bear's genetics through the DNA in the hair, and also about their diet through compounds that get integrated in the hair as the bear is eating."

In 40 locations around James Bay, Langwieder and her team set up a triangle of posts with barbed wire, surrounding a pile of rocks covered in fish juice. As the bears crossed the barbed wire to investigate the bait, they left their hair behind for the researchers to collect later. 

Remote camera footage of a polar bear sniffing and then stepping on a barbed wire stretched between two posts.
A polar bear inspects the hair snare trap set up by Alexandra Langwieder in the Eeyou Marine Region of James Bay. (Alexandra Langwieder)

A camera was also recording, to capture information about the bears' body condition and how they're interacting with the trap.

"We have some pretty good videos of some polar bear quality control tests," said Langwieder. "They systematically check each point of the triangle and they smell all along the wire. Obviously they go for the bait in the middle but they also go for the camera… and often try to pull it off the post."

Hopping around the N.W.T, studying zombie fires that come back to life

Zombie fires are aptly named because they don't die when you expect them to. Most fires go out at the end of fire season, but occasionally fires can smoulder underground only to reignite the following year. 

This summer, a group of scientists from Canada, the U.S. and the Netherlands travelled up to the Northwest Territories to visit 20 sites where zombie fires occurred.

A woman holding a set of long metal tools is crouched over, inspecting a turned over tree stump.
Jennifer Baltzer, a forest ecologist from Wilfrid Laurier University, sticks her hand into a tree that was scorched from the inside in a zombie fire. (Merritt Turetsky)

Jennifer Baltzer, an associate professor of biology and the Canada Research Chair in Forests and Global Change at Wilfrid Laurier University, was part of the team. 

She said she was astonished to see the variety of conditions that could support a zombie fire, known more officially as a holdover fire. 

They were expecting these zombie fires to occur in areas with a thick peat layer that could provide a good combustion source for the fire to smoulder, which they did find — but they also came across heavily wooded areas with thinner peat layers that were able to support a reignition as well. 

In those woodstands, Balzter said they found trees that were charred inside and hollowed out, and with scorched roots. 

Heading to the foggiest place on Earth — Atlantic Canada — to better predict marine fog 

It's not often scientists head out in the field hoping for lousy weather. But that is exactly what a team of scientists did this summer when they made their way to the foggiest place on Earth, the Atlantic coast. 

Fog is a fleeting phenomenon that can be fickle to predict, let alone study, and we know even less about fog at sea than we do on land. That's why an international group of scientists converted a ship into a mobile laboratory that travelled between Grand Banks, Newfoundland and Sable Island, Nova Scotia.

A man in an orange shirt smiles at the camera while standing on a big boat. Next to him is a stack of electronic equipment.
Trevor VandenBoer from York University spent two weeks aboard a ship that was converted into a mobile lab to study fog along the Atlantic coast. (Leyla Salehpoor)

Trevor VandenBoer, an environmental analytical chemist from York University in Toronto, is one of the Canadian scientists who joined the expedition to gain a better understanding of the conditions that create fog over the ocean. He was there to study the nitty-gritty of fog droplets. 

He said the biggest surprise was the variability of fog conditions they encountered, everything from incredibly windy conditions that failed to get rid of the fog, to times when they could even see a sunny blue sky beyond the veil of fog.

A man sits on the dock of a boat at night, looking out at the sea, with a full moon glowing above him.
A jellyfish fisherman looking out on the Ariake Sea at 2 am waiting to set the fishing nets. (Jessica Schaub)

More From This Episode

  • Becky Edwards, a remote sensing analyst for Ducks Unlimited Canada's national boreal program spent many hours in a helicopter this summer, mapping wetlands to support Indigenous-led conservation in Kaska, northern British Columbia. The project was helped by Indigenous Land Guardians led by Tanya Ball.
  • Jessica Schaub, a PhD student in Oceanography at the University of British Columbia spent 40 days in Japan this summer, the first stop on a four-country tour to study various aspects of jellyfish ecology.

Written and produced by Amanda Buckiewicz, Sonya Buyting, Jim Lebans, and Mark Crawley