Sunday, January 6, 2013

Churchill Redux Part III: The Churchill Northern Studies Centre

The "bird-fish" symbol of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre

Our November 6, 2012 arrival.
The northern tip of Churchill's Wildlife Management Area (beige on the map), once the purview of both the Canadian and the U.S. military, is the portal to "polar bear-land" for most visitors, whether tourists or scientists. Some of it is open to public travel, a small portion is set aside exclusively for the two operators of tours in the specially designed vehicles known as tundra rovers or tundra buggies, and one piece of it, where the military rocket research range facilities once were, was in 1976 repurposed to become the august Churchill Northern Studies Centre.
Churchill's tallest structure, visible from almost anywhere the tundra buggies go, marks the location of the Studies Centre; as a research administrator specializing in the management of research centers, my job is to worry about scientists' access to the tools and infrastructure they need in addition to financial resources to support themselves, their staff, and their work, so, looking at that distant landmark every day of our 2011 visit to Churchill truly piqued my curiosity as to how the Centre operates and what science goes on there. Unfortunately, it was not on Natural Habitat Adventures' agenda.
Click to enlarge to see the tallest shape on the distant horizon
So yet another of many reasons I was so excited about our 2012 return to Churchill with Jim Halfpenny's A Naturalist's World  was that our group was to be lodged at the CNSC! Here is a little what I have learned about it:

CNSC is an independent research facility that investigators can apply to for stipends to cover their living expenses, but most also need to bring their own grants to cover the often substantial cost of research, such as helicopter transport to, say, census moose from the air, or over-snow vehicles for measuring wind speeds and temperatures at various locations, or reagents for bench work in the Centre's or their own labs back home. Competitively awarded grants, for example from the National Science Foundation of the U.S. government, support high quality inquiries into Churchill's unique offerings, including its "charismatic megafauna" such as polar bears, wolves, and beluga whales; birds, insects and plants; other life forms adapted to the extreme conditions, like lichens and microbes; geology, especially of the extraordinary Canadian shield; climate change; solar science, astronomy, and the aurorae borealis; and the economy, language, health, or ethnography of local peoples.
Almost fluorescently bright lichens on the exposed rocks of Cape Merry, Churchill
Much more substantially, according to the Report on Research and Monitoring in the Greater Wapusk Region, Churchill Northern Studies Centre and Parks Canada, 2010-2011, "[i]n April of 2009, research facilities in the Churchill area received an infusion of funds when the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC) was successful in obtaining $11,000,000 from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) as part of the Arctic Research Infrastructure Fund (ARIF). The ARIF is an $85,000,000 program that was part of Canada’s Economic Action Plan and the fund was designed to invest in maintaining and upgrading key arctic research facilities."  The Report also contains succinct summaries of many recent projects, and is well worth a look to get a feel of the quality and scope of the scientific activities carried out in the region.

I am greatly heartened by the CNSC's success in acquiring funds to upgrade and maintain such critically important infrastructure that serves inquiry, great and small, in this fragile, fast-changing environment.

All this is not to say I didn't have trepidations about staying there when I learned that the accommodations are dorm-style, with two bunk beds in a room, such that for seven nights I would be sleeping, or trying to sleep, in a small room with three women I had never before met, as would KLK be with men who were strangers to him. I should not have worried, there was sufficient flexibility that one could trade one's assignment, and so those who already knew each other could room together. I knew no one, but the other three women in my room had all met before, and what they had in common with one another and with me was a love of Yellowstone National Park. It was in fact a match made in heaven - and Kevin's roomies were likewise Yellowstone fanatics. And no one snored! 
We were also lucky in that just two years ago, the CNSC had opened its new building - everything was spotless and commodious (except maybe the thermostat, which was a bit sophisticated for us, such that those in top beds were hot all night if those of us on the bottom were warm enough. So it worked out, with the two menopausal types having already claimed the lower beds - on the "age before beauty" principle - before this micro-climatological phenomenon was even recognized). There wasn't much room, but we managed to cram our stuff - very bulky due to the need to dress in layers, large boots, camera and tripods and so on - out of each others way. But the thing I loved the very most about the accommodations was that there were no locks on the doors: no key to assign, fumble with, or lose, and a sense of trust engendered by a common fascination with polar bears and all things Churchill that set the tone for the entire stay. 
The subarctic is unforgiving of human habitation: garbage and waste are extremely difficult to make disappear from an isolated location like Churchill; permafrost first makes ground excavation difficult, then, as the climate warms, softens and destabilizes building foundations. And, because of the year-round cold temperatures, human-occupied structures must consume extraordinary volumes of fuel. Read about how brilliantly the CNSC has addressed some of these problems in an environmentally optimal way at World Wildlife Foundation-Canada's blog
The rocky tundra around the Churchill Northern Studies Centre appears to be a very watery place; it's pockmarked with fresh water streams, ponds, and lakes, and the mighty Churchill River itself is not far away, so who would think fresh water for a building-full of visitors, scientists and staff would have to be conserved, until one is reminded that most of the surrounding water sources are shallow and thus stay frozen for a good portion of each year.  The Centre uses water piped from the nearby Norton Lake when temperatures allow. When we visited in November, water was already being trucked in from the Churchill River 15 miles away. 
A small fresh-water stream - not yet frozen - with the Churchill Northern Studies Centre as backdrop.
Thus, all the bathrooms are equipped with four low-flow toilets, plus one composting toilet. Likewise, the wash basins and showers have automatic water shut-offs - fine for hand-washing or brushing one's teeth, but a little shivery for showering. We had of course been provided terry bath towels, but for quick dries, the restrooms have those frustrating motion-detecting paper towel dispensers that issue a few inches of barely-absorbent 100% post-consumer waste paper at a time. Then, suddenly one morning, the paper towel dispenser in our restroom grew tired of the constant demand and staged a rebellion!
But this marvelous building has LEED Gold certification, and all willingly went along with the spirit of resource conservation. 
 KLK at the thermal windows in the new Centre's Weston Family Welcome Lounge
The Centre has many other facilities for both working and touring visitors, including several seminar rooms, a library, wi-fi and guest computers, personal laundry, a large cafeteria with good food and lots of it, a media room, a little indoor exercise area, and a large outdoor viewing platform high above any bear's reach.

Early morning view from the CNSC second floor viewing platform. See any bears?
There was indeed at least one very large bear here, right up against the base of the building; photo taken from the viewing platform.
But the most marvelous feature of all is the aurora dome, accessed via an interior spiral staircase to a small, room-temperature platform covered by a large domed window to the skies. Not only can one comfortably and safely view the northern lights but it makes for a fantastic place to stand and watch  stars and meteor showers. The Milky Way on a cold, crystal-clear night at that latitude is not short of magical. And what fun it was to stand, neck craned, with a half a dozen fellow travelers viewing these incredible phenomena, all in our pajamas!
I do not have much by way of photos of the building or the other structures scattered around the grounds - some in current use, but most shuttered since the military departed. November is high polar bear-season, and people to do not walk around outside, at least not without an escort armed with a shotgun and both cracker and live shells. Polar bears are fearlessly curious, move very quickly and silently, and can be aggressive. But I was able to get a shot of the "blue" wing, to the left of the entrance, which comprises dorm and seminar rooms, administration, library, lounge, and gift shop (with the best sweatshirts ever!).
To the right of the entrance are the cafeteria (first floor), more seminar rooms, the media and exercise room, and the aurora dome (not visible on the roof from this angle, unfortunately). The viewing platform is on the opposite side of this wing. 
to understand and sustain the north
The bear that left those turkey platter-sized prints had come directly toward where I stood to take this photo, right under the cafeteria windows around the corner to the right.
Before assembling for our parting group shot, Jim Halfpenny threw a shotgun over his shoulder and took a quick look-see to assure our safety.
The sharp-eyed among you might notice that sometime between our arrival and our departure 6 days later - we boarded the bus for the airport as soon as this photo was snapped - the "e" in Northern disappeared from over the door. Most likely that notorious Churchill character, the Wind, took a shine to it and carried it away.
And by the way, the beacon-like structure turned out to be a remarkable old rocket launch, with its base enclosed to enable operations to continue through the coldest part of the year. After the military departed, detector-equipped rockets were launched, for instance, to rise high in the atmosphere to study the aurorae borealis for which the circumpolar region is justly famous.  
Non-commercial educational expeditions such as ours, and others, including the Centre itself, use the facilities and services of the Centre. Check out the CNSC's 2013 brochure listing its public education offerings. It's all I can do to keep myself from signing up for all of them!

Click here to go to part IV.

1 comment:

  1. Most interesting series on Churchill, Veronica. I'm fascinated enough to bring up a trip to Mrs. T. Time will tell....:)