Nov. 26, 2015

Arctic's past holds answers to pressing climate change questions

Research into centuries-old marine records among 32 projects supported by SSHRC grants this year
Maribeth Murray received an Insight grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for her research project, Northern Seas: An Interdisciplinary Study of Human/Marine and Climate System Interactions in Arctic North America over the Last Millennium.

Maribeth Murray received an Insight grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

When Maribeth Murray, director of the Arctic Institute of North America, began recruiting her team to investigate historic climate and sea ice variability in the Arctic, she was looking for archeologists, ecologists and geographers. Old world handwriting expert wasn’t listed as a requirement, but is a skill that’s already coming in handy.

“We’re pulling together data from the logs of historic explorations ships, whaling ships, seal hunting vessels, as well as coastal trading posts,” says Murray. “We want to see what the Arctic marine ecosystem looked like before extensive anthropogenic impacts caused by human activity, and use that information to help address contemporary environmental problems linked to climate change.”

Murray received an Insight grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) earlier this year to fund her four-year project, which will ultimately produce research to help build better Arctic climate models and develop marine ecosystem impact scenarios that can inform management and conservation.

Wealth of observations found in old ship records

Postdoctorate fellow Patricia Wells, an archaeologist and documentary researcher, arrived from the University of Western Ontario last month. She’s begun scouring journals from Hudson Bay Company posts along the Arctic coast between the Beaufort Sea in the west and the Labrador Sea in the east. These handwritten texts go back over 300 years.

“It takes a few days for your eyes to adjust to the language used and the style of handwriting,” says Wells.

“I’ve started with journals from the Hudson’s Bay Company housed in Government of Manitoba archives. I was happy to discover there are 92 coastal posts in my study area, all with preserved journal information.”

Contained in these records, and those written by crew members on a wide range of ships, is a wealth of observations on climate conditions, sea ice and even wildlife. The Hudson Bay Company, for instance, mandated that climate conditions be reported as matter of routine.

Overlap with work by international experts

“It’s a huge undertaking, no one has pulled all this together before,” says Murray. “People are definitely interested, I only had to make a couple phone calls and had interest from museums and archives in the United States, England and Denmark all wanting to collaborate.”

Some pieces of the work have already been completed by groups such as the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has captured most American whaling ship data, and Old Weather, an international citizen science initiative that has been digitizing ship records and using crowdsourcing to transcribe them.

“We’re looking to see how much overlap these organizations have with our work,” says Murray.  

The Whaling Grounds, by Abraham Storck, shows a scene of Dutch whaling in the Arctic Ocean. The image is housed at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.  Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. The image is an example of the rich collection of northern data and photographs being used in the Arctic Institute’s study of climate models.

The Whaling Grounds, by Abraham Storck, shows a scene of Dutch whaling in the Arctic Ocean.

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  • Above: The image is housed at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and is an example of the rich collection of northern data and photographs being used in the Arctic Institute’s study of climate models. 

Combing through 400 years of colourful data

Her team also includes postdoctoral fellow and co-investigator Gabriela Ibarguchi, an evolutionary ecologist with expertise in biodiversity in polar environments, as well as a third postdoc fellow supported through the Eyes High program with expertise in climatology and geospatial analysis who will arrive in the new year, and likely a PhD student a little later on. They will be looking for museums and archives in Canada, the U.S., U.K., Norway and Denmark that might have records from ships that travelled through the Arctic over the past 400 years.

“The problem, and I guess it’s a good problem to have, is we have an embarrassment of riches,” says Murray. “There’s so much available, it’s just a matter of going through it all.”

And then there’s the task of building a baseline from all the observations they collect. Many logs collected information such as wind speeds, the thickness and texture of ice and the health of wildlife. But, for instance, wind speed might be reported in terms such as “a hearty gale.” Quantifying that in scientific terms with other observations that also use descriptions unique to the observer is another challenge. But the result should be some interesting snapshots from history.

Toward an understanding of how Arctic responds to climate change

“We’re not going to get consistent spatial and temporal coverage for the entire period in which we are interested, but rather a combination of data that is very rich temporally but spatially restricted (such as that from HBC post records), or information that is point data — from one place at one point in time. However, together these data sets can provide a lot of detail on short-term climate, weather and ecological conditions,” says Wells. “We can see how the Little Ice Age (approximately 1300-1850) impacted one specific area versus another specific area and then perhaps gain insight into why there may have been differences from one area to another.

“Climate and ecosystem modelling are complex activities and currently we lack both climatological and ecological baseline data that can contribute to a more robust model. Any time we can extend key time series like barometric pressure or species biogeography, it adds to our understanding of how the Arctic might respond to climate change in the future.”

Other collaborators on this project include:  

  • Shannon Vossepoel, Arctic Institute of North America; Anthropology, and library science and information management
  • Peter Schledermann, Arctic Institute of North America; Arctic human ecology and history
  • David Atkinson, University of Victoria; Geography and Arctic climate
  • David Barber, University of Manitoba; Arctic system science and Earth observation

The pressures of our growing global population are changing how we interact with each other, our systems and our limited natural resources. The University of Calgary’s Human Dynamics in a Changing World research strategy brings together multidisciplinary teams to understand these changes — to ensure our security, quality of life and the health of our ecosystems.

Dutch Whalers near Spitsbergen, a painting by Abraham Stork, is housed at Zuiderzeemuseum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands.

Dutch Whalers near Spitsbergen, a painting by Abraham Stork.

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  • Above: the painting is housed at Zuiderzeemuseum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands. 

2015 Insight Grants to University of Calgary researchers

The SSHRC Insight program supports research excellence in the social sciences and humanities. The funding is geared to both long-term research like Murray’s, as well as for early stage research.

The 2015 round of Insight grants marks the highest number received by University of Calgary researchers since the program was launched in 2011. The maximum value of an Insight grant is $500,000 over three to five years. 

Faculty of Arts:

  • Shelley Alexander, Department of Geography, $111,254: “Human-Coyote Relationships in the Foothills Parkland Region of Alberta." 
  • Bart Beaty, Department of English, $280,879: "What Were Comics? Understanding Typicality in the Cultural Industries."
  • Susan Bennett, Department of English, $103,382: “Brand Performance and the Mega-Event Experience." 
  • Christian Bok, Department of English, $97,564: "Conceptual Literature: Writing at the Limits of Writing." 
  • George Colpitts, Department of History, $87,385: "Treaty Trade: Cash and the Monetization of Aboriginal-Newcomer Relations in Canada 1874-1925." 
  • Hendrik Kraay, Department of  History, $114,937: "From Entrudo to Carnaval in Brazil."
  • Sheri Madigan, Department of Psychology, $128,715: "Person and Environment Influences in the Development of Prosociality in Young Children.”
  • Maribeth Murray, Department of Archaeology, $245,332: "Northern Seas: An Interdisciplinary Study of Human/Marine and Climate System Interactions in Arctic North America Over the Last Millennium."
  • Alan Smart, Department of Anthropology, $94,828: "Formalizing Hong Kong: Explaining Governmental Strategies to Formalize Urban Informality.” 
  • Charles Tepperman, Department of Communication and Culture, $88,840: "Mapping an Alternative Film History: A Database of Significant Amateur Films (1928-1971)." 
  • Melanee Thomas, Department of Political Science, $213,546: "Psychological Orientations to Politics, Gendered Stereotype Threat, and Democratic Citizenship."
  • Trevor Tombe, Department of Economics, $90,922: "The Gains from Trade and Labour Mobility."
  • Aritha van Herk, Department of English, $132,840: "A Creative Biography of Canadian Writer Robert Kroetsch."

Faculty of Social Work:

  • Betty Bastien, $247,861: "Atsimapi: Cultural Competencies for Restoring Good Relations in First Nation Communities."

Haskayne School of Business:

  • David Alexander, $99,500: "Financial Decision-Making, Monetary Policy, and Asset Prices Under Incomplete Information."
  • Susan Graham, Department of Psychology, $273,997: "Communicative Development During the Preschool Years.

Werklund School of Education:

  • Yan Guo, Division of Teacher Preparation, $90,025: "Examining EAL Policies and Practices in Alberta and Community Advocacy." 

Faculty of Environmental Design:

  • Jason Johnson, $443,500: "Constructing Digital Futures: Community-Based Innovation."

Cumming School of Medicine:

  • Bonnie Lashewicz, Community Health Sciences, $293,018: "More Than Meets the Eye: Illuminating and Expanding the Impacts of Relational Autonomy for Adults with Developmental Disabilities."


2015 Insight Development Grants to University of Calgary researchers

Faculty of Arts:

  • Stefan Staubli Muehlenbachs, Department of Economics, $30,215: "How Does Raising Women's Full Retirement Age Affect Labour Supply, Income, and Mortality?" 
  • Candace Konnert, Department of Psychology, $34,039: "Planning for Future Dependency: A Mixed Methods Study."
  • Charles Tepperman, Department of Communication and Culture, $34,098: "Film Production Culture in Canada: Case Study of a Creative Producer."
  • Kunio Tsuyuhara, Department of Economics, $51,180: "A New Approach to International Trade and Labour Market Research.”
  • Bart Beaty, Department of English, $65,272: "Understanding Charlie Hebdo in its Cultural Contexts."
  • Joanna Redden, Department of Communications and Culture, $71,500: "Big Data and Social Governance: Investigating the United States and the United Kingdom."
  • Sheri Madigan, Department of Psychology, $73,600: "An Individual Participant Data Review on the Intergenerational Transmission of Attachment."
  • Dean Curran, Department of Sociology, $74,308: "Who are the 'Risk Takers?' "
  • Michael Adorjan, Department of Sociology, $67,428: "Cyber-Risk,Youth and Community: Digital Citizenship in Canada."

Werklund School of Education

  • Miwa Takeuchi, $41,204: "Interaction and Collaboration for Mathematics Learning in Diverse Canadian Classrooms."
  • Gregory Lowan, $48,337: "From Reticence to Resistance: Exploring Educators’ Engagement with Indigenous Environmental Activism."

Haskayne School of Business

  • Mohammad Keyhani, $49,410: "The Performance and Exit Tradeoffs of Startups."

Cumming School of Medicine:

  • Gerald Giesbrecht, Department of Pediatrics, $70,870: "Parenting in the Dark: Does the ‘Cry-it-Out’ Sleep Training Method Harm Attachment or Promote Self-Regulation?” 

 The federal government’s  Research Support Fund assists Canadian postsecondary institutions and their affiliated research hospitals and institutes with the expenses associated with managing the research funded by Tri-Council agencies (CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC). The Research Support Fund helps the university create an environment where researchers can focus on their research, collaborate with colleagues, and translate their discoveries and innovations. Read more about how UCalgary uses the Research Support Fund