What does it mean to be an explorer?

There are different types of exploration. Exploration is not just the discovery of a new place, it is also the discovery of new information and knowledge. Here on the island, we are trying to understand the causes of the Arctic greening patterns observed by satellites and exactly how these landscapes are being influenced by climate change. I guess the ultimate aim of our scientific research is scientific discovery, but we are striving for a different sort of discovery than Arctic explorers of the past.

One way that Team Shrub research is providing a new perspective on Arctic greening and change is by capturing a drone’s eye view of the tundra. Photo by Team Shrub.

Though Qikiqtaruk is located in a remote region of the Yukon Arctic coast over 200 km from the nearest year-round settlement, it is also home to the Inuvialuit. It has a long human history and active current community of hunters, gatherers and travelers. When we as researchers visit this place we are not exploring new territory. We are visiting the home of others and getting to know this landscape for ourselves. Each day out on the tundra, one is forming a mental map of each ridge and valley, each plant species and plot, but arguably this is only a personal discovery – others have set foot here before.

Arctic exploration has a mixed past. There are many epic tails to be told of southern people adventuring in the North and forming their own ideas about this environment. But many of those adventures have not ended well for the people involved. This summer I have been reading about the 1921-23 Wrangle Island expedition organized by Vilhjalmur Stefansson (“Ada Blackjack – A True Story of Survival in The Arctic” by Jennifer Niven). That expedition was not a success with four dying and the lone survivor being a Inupiat woman from near Nome, Alaska called Ada Blackjack. She alone figured out how to survive for two years in that far North landscape.

The Wrangle five after they had arrived on the island and before the hardships had begun. Pictured are Allan Crawford, Lorne Knight, Fred Maurer, Milton Galle, Ada Blackjack and Victoria (“Vic”) the expedition cat. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.

The Wrangle expedition overturned Stefansson’s concept of the “friendly Arctic” as a place where anyone can easily subsist and survive. That being said, the Arctic is a very friendly place in many ways, if you come prepared and have the support of those who have lived here for countless generations. So as I have my daily dose of Country Time powdered drink with 100% of my daily vitamin C to stave off scurvy, the ailment to which one member of the Stefansson expedition succumbed, I think of the Arctic explorers of the past who did not have access to such modern comforts.

Stefansson made it to Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island on his 1913 Arctic expedition, but it was only a short stop on the island, recorded here in his journal, which I got to check out at the Dartmouth College Rauner Library a couple of years ago. He returned to Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island in multiple other occasions. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.

Over the past few years, I have been hanging out with a few different photographers: Jeffrey Kerby, Sandra Angers-Blondin and Gergana Daskalova. I wouldn’t call myself a photographer exactly, but thinking about photography has driven home the idea for me that every photographic image and also every idea formed is viewed through a lens. When I come to the Arctic and form my scientific understanding – I too see through a lens. Stefansson saw the Arctic through a very distorted lens, or perhaps rather he used filters to construct a version of the Arctic that was far from reality.

Window_reflection_GND
The Arctic can be viewed from different angles. See Gergana’s post on the Arctic at a Second Glance. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Science, the other form of exploration, is also a journey. You apply for funding, if your funding comes through, you plan your field expedition, you get all your equipment and supplies and travel to your field site. And then once I arrive, I usually have a small crisis of confidence. Will we be able to collect the data? Were my ideas that good to begin with? What if everything goes wrong? Then you make a schedule and start plugging away and before you know it the data are coming in and you are achieving your goals day by day.

I have just started reading about one of the world’s most famous explorer scientists – Alexander Humboldt. By reading his writings this summer (“Selected Writings” edited by Andrea Wolf), I hope to be inspired by my own more humble scientific adventures. Humboldt was the father of biogeography and an early pioneer of ecology. He was also the first person arguably to use the infographic to great effect. His ‘Naturgemälde’ is a drawing of a mountain with all of the plant species by elevation depicted on the mountain slopes and environmental parameters that vary with elevation along the two sides. Capturing complex scientific concepts visually is something that I aspire towards.

The ‘Naturgemälde’ shows Chimborazo mountain – a mountain that helped Humboldt form his vision of nature. The engraving illustrates Humboldt’s ideas about plant distributions and nature as a web of life. Photo by Isla Myers-Smith.

Humboldt was driven by scientific discovery as he describes here in his ‘Personal Narrative’, 1812: “From my earliest days I felt the urge to travel to distant lands seldom visited by Europeans. This urge characterizes a moment when our life seems to open before us like a limitless horizon… What attracted me … was no longer the promise of a wandering life full of adventures, but a desire to see with my own eyes a grand, wild nature…, and the prospect of collecting facts that might contribute to the progress of science.”

Sometimes scientific discoveries happen right in the field. We now know how the big thaw slump on the island has changed between this year and last as the peninsula that has been there for perhaps a decade is melting away. We have discovered that the surface soils at this time of year are thawed deeper than they have ever been since we started our measurements. It looks like the erosion is not slowing down this year along the coastal reach near camp. As the field season progresses, I am learning many new things about this place.

The second largest thaw slump in North America – Slump D – from the air. Here, you can see the much reduced peninsula and impressive ice cliffs of the headwall from the air. Photo by Team Shrub.

Sometimes the discoveries come much later once the data are analyzed. We won’t get the full answers to our greening questions until we have processed many drone models and analyzed many different datasets together. This full process of scientific discovery can take many years from data collection to papers. But it is finding the answers to my research questions that really drives me and keeps me going when the scientific process is slow and winding.

Being an Arctic researcher is, I guess, a combination of the two types of exploration – exploration of a place, and of the scientific understanding of that place. I feel very lucky to have a career that allows me to do both. I hope that I can be a different type of explorer to the first southern explorers who came to this place. I hope to share more respect for the people living here and the immense knowledge that they have. I hope the research that we do contributes to a better understanding of this place for everyone. As I conduct exploration in the modern day, I try to think on the exploration of the past. I believe that the relationships between researchers and local peoples are improving, but there is more to do on this front.

Isla looking out onto the sea and thinking about those exploring Arctic ground in times past. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

For now, here, from the island, I will try to get the most out of my time on the tundra in preparation for a winter of data exploration in front of a computer. And I will try always to keep in mind my own personal lens through which I view the Arctic.

Words by Isla Myers-Smith

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