An expert in understanding the weird and wonderful world of marine creatures that live deep under the Arctic ice.
What do you do when you need a boat to load scientific equipment into and you are in the Eastern Arctic, thousands of kilometers away from the nearest boat store? For Kathy Conlan, a marine biologist with the Canadian Museum of Nature, the answer was to ask an Inuit elder if she could borrow his boat.
The elder agreed, and a friendship between Conlan and the old man formed. “After that, I used to drop by and visit whenever I could,” said Conlan. “He made me an ulu, a symbol of the North West Territories that was used traditionally for skinning animals. It was a big surprise completely out of the blue.”
But, as someone who has worked in the far-North for over a decade, Conlan is used to the warm reception and welcome of the Northern people.
Conlan has been studying marine life on the bottom of the Arctic ocean for many years. But, in addition to conducting research, she is an educator for the North.
Conlan participates in government programs that utilize the expertise of scientists passing through the Arctic to teach science to teachers and to school children in Northern communities. As well, she has participated in the Students on Ice program, which takes high school aged children on cruise ships around the Antarctic and Arctic. “The founding idea was that if youth knew about the Arctic and Antarctica they would protect and stand up for it against any exploitation that might occur in the future,” said Conlan. “In essence, we were creating a bunch of ambassadors.”
Conlan has also communicated her science to the Innu and Inuit people who live where she researches. In February 2007, she and ten other science colleagues traveled from village to village explaining their research studies and findings. “The people were very welcoming and always put up with our heavy science presentations usually lasting 3.5 hours,” said Conlan. “They understood our work and were very concerned also. They felt it was essential that they were involved and to make sure their concerns were heard.”
One of Conlan’s favourite parts of her job is deepsea diving. According to Conlan, the diving in Antarctica is better than in the Arctic because the water is too murky with sediment from the Mackenzie river. Plus, because the ice is always shifting in the Arctic and weather conditions have to be just right, there is no time for fun dives and often you will dive twice in a day, which is “very cold and not as pleasant.”
When diving Conlan also takes fantastic underwater images that were turned into the children’s book Under the Ice in 2002. That book won the prestigious Science in Society prize for a children’s book handed out by the Canadian Science Writers’ Association.
Conlan didn’t have any experience with the ocean growing up, until a trip out to the West coast when she was 16 or so. "I was really taken with the ocean and marine life at that point, and that trip really solidified my interest in going into biology."
Sometimes serendipity is why you do things. Such was the case for Kathy Conlan and her research into marine biology in Antarctica and the Arctic.
It was while Conlan was doing her Ph.D. and working for the Canadian Museum of Nature that she got hooked on the biology of the polar regions. She was identifying specimens from the Arctic and Antarctica from a group of Californian researchers. She casually asked how they obtained their samples, and they replied that they went regularly to Alaska and Antarctica for research trips. Moreover, they invited her to accompany them to Antarctica.
At the time, Conlan was defending her thesis and was unable to accept. But, a year later, they offered her a spot on a ship once again, and within a week she was exploring Antarctica. “I remember thinking, what would I want to go to a place like that for?" said Conlan. "I thought about it for about three days and decided to go, and once I was there I got really hooked on the place.”
Because of her connection with the Californian scientists, she began to investigate the possibility of doing research in the Arctic. As a Canadian she could get permission and access to places that were not accessible to the Americans.
This was the second time that serendipity stepped in. She was going over some geological literature about ice scours, which she had studied at the South Pole, and she found a scientist named Steve Blasco with the Geological Survey of Canada. “Steve Blasco had published all kinds of stuff on ice scours, so I gave him a cold call and asked are you interested in working with some biologists,” said Conlan. “He got really interested, so we came up the next year and have been collaborating ever since. Just goes to show you what can happen when you bump into somebody.”
That collaboration has been key to understanding how marine life exists in the weird world below the ice.
Conlan began working with Blasco in the Eastern Arctic looking at the effect of ice scours. When icebergs float around the Arctic they are often so tall that they scrape the sea floor, disturbing everything in its wake. Conlan sampled the species in areas that had been recently disturbed and compared those areas to undisturbed sea floor.
“We found that the scouring and plowing was positive,” said Conlan. “It created spaces for weedy species that are quick to come into a new area. Species that were longer lived and better competitors but not as fast to come in, eventually move in and remove the weedy species. So, the scours had a mosaic effect for weedy species, and overall we found a higher diversity of marine life as long as the ice scouring was not so repetitive that animals couldn’t get settled in.”
Understanding how marine communities shift over time is Conlan’s main interest, and she has studied it in other ways.
In the 1970s, an oil shortage led companies to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic. Often these companies would suck up a pile of mud and use it to build an island to drill on. After the oil crisis ended, these companies left, taking their equipment and simply bulldozing the island flat.
As a new oil crisis looms, those original companies are looking to return to the Arctic to drill for new oil. However, what effect did their previous drilling have on the marine life?
Conlan found that the sea floor itself is rather well established, but in areas that jut above the sea floor interesting things happen. “There’s lots of activity above the sea floor,” said Conlan. Current action and water motion bring nutrients up from the deep, and that changes the communities on the sea floor, making them more productive and diverse.
What Conlan saw on those bulldozed oil islands was a completely new community brimming with an explosion of varying species. That led her to suggest that perhaps these areas deserve special protection in the future.
Knowing how life responded to manmade islands, Conlan wanted to test if that same increased diversity occurred on some naturally produced islands. On either side of the Mackenzie Canyon, a natural underwater hollow carved out by a large glacier, there are mud volcanoes.
These volcanoes are caused because methane gas can’t escape through the canyon due to a sedimentary cap that has formed over it, so the methane bubbles up through the weaker sides instead. And, on top of these mud volcanoes Conlan has once again found that because more nutrients float through the water, there is a greater diversity of life.
With the threat of reduced ice in the Arctic because of global warming, Conlan worries about how that will affect the species living in ice scoured regions. “The lack of ice would directly impact upwelling, and nutrient levels in the water would become much more stratified,” said Conlan. “If there were no turn over, then no nutrients would come up from the deep and you would not find the rich biological communities we find today.”
Climate change is a very big issue in the Arctic. But, another issue is the way contaminants are being imported from outside the region. According to studies, huge amounts of contamination are coming to the Arctic from Russia, China, Canada, and the USA. Conlan wonders how these contaminants will affect the Arctic environment but she feels the contaminant problem is much more solvable in the short-term than climate warming. Profile by Graeme Stemp-Morlock