POLITICS

Botanists on Baffin: researchers head out on old-school scientific study

06/23/2012 06:00 EDT | Updated 08/23/2012 05:12 EDT
In an age of computer-driven, high-technology and number-crunching Big Science, a small group of Canadian researchers is heading out for an expedition on which Charles Darwin would have felt right at home.

Four botanists are loading canoes with camping gear, plant presses and a rifle or two and striking out into the Arctic wilderness to see what's there — just as their famed predecessor did on his 1830s expeditions in the Galapagos Islands off South America.

"It's absolutely no different," said Jeff Saarela of the Canadian Museum of Nature, one of the scientists who will be botanizing it old school for four weeks later this month in a region of the Arctic that hasn't been surveyed in nearly a century.

"Our predecessors 100 years ago certainly travelled by boat and by foot. They walked a lot and travelled by canoe to get around because there was no other way to do it."

Saarela and his colleagues are heading to the Soper River on southern Baffin Island. The area isn't that far from Nunavut's capital, Iqaluit, and is part of a territorial park, but the region's plants haven't been studied or inventoried since the 1920s.

The botanists want to assess landforms and soil types, then set in to do what they do best — look around and try to understand which plants grow where and beside which other plants. And they'll collect samples using a method many will recall from grade-school science class.

"Botanists have been collecting plants for hundreds of years in the same fashion," Saarela said.

"We dig specimens, we dry them in plant presses, just like you do in Grade 3 when you put them in a book. We put our plant specimens between sheets of newspaper and then those are put between corrugated cardboard and piled up."

The specimens will go back to Canada's National Herbarium, a library of dried plants from across the country with samples that go back to the 19th century.

This group will use some procedures that Darwin didn't — although he would probably have been fascinated by the DNA database the team plans to create.

The idea, said Saarela, is to help construct a more complete picture of poorly understood Arctic ecology.

"In the Arctic there are huge areas of land that aren't very well explored and their biodiversity isn't really well known. Part of the goal of our work is to know what the plants are and where they occur, and the only way to do that is to be on the ground."

The work will also become a baseline against which the rapidly changing Arctic can be measured.

"We expect that as the climate changes, biodiversity will change, too," Saarela said.

"Are species moving in response to changing climate? Without knowing what's there at a point in time like now, in 15 or 20 years it's not easy to go back and say, 'This has moved in.'"

The trip requires expertise not necessarily picked up in grad school. All the expedition members have had to pass canoe training classes and qualify for firearms acquisition certificates. Polar bears could be an issue.

"There are more polar bears inland these years and they seem to be hungrier," said Roger Bull, who will co-ordinate the DNA collection. "There's a chance that we will see a polar bear that's wandered up the Soper River valley."

Bugs will be a certainty.

"We'll bring bug jackets for sure," said research assistant Paul Sokoloff.

The weather could vary from warm, 24-hour sun to snow.

"We're hoping for the best and preparing for the worst," said Sokoloff. "We'll bring waterproof everything."

The team plans to get on the field Tuesday and not return until July 24. The days in between will be filled with the sort of science that once was standard but is now practised less and less.

"One of the unfortunate things is that this sort of work is in decline," said Saarela. "A lot of work these days in science and biology is really laboratory based, so going out and doing this sort of exploratory work is absolutely important to understanding what the biodiversity of our country is."