by Hayley McLennan, aPhD researcher in the Pelagic Ecology Research Group at the University of St Andrews
This August I was fortunate enough to travel to Pangnirtung on Baffin Island and carry out a scientific echosounding survey in the foraging grounds of bowhead whales. As long-lived, slow-growing marine mammals, bowhead whales are especially vulnerable to the rapid environmental change that we are seeing in the Arctic. I am particularly interested in how sea ice loss and warming waters will alter the distribution of the zooplankton species that they feed on. To start answering these questions we need to understand where whales are currently feeding, the density of zooplankton in those areas, and the environmental and oceanographic conditions associated with feeding grounds that support present bowhead whale populations.
This project is being led by Dr Sarah Fortune from Dalhousie University in Canada and involves a large team of researchers to carry out extensive data collection. My supervisor, Professor Andrew Brierley, and I travelled from St Andrews to Canada, where we met Sarah and her students from Dalhousie – Manon den Haan and Alexis Bazinet, Connor Mackie from Dartmouth Ocean Technology (DOT), Katrina Pyne from the Hakai Institute and Dr Paolo Segre from the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. In Pangnirtung we were supported by our excellent team of local boat operators, Ricky, Eric and Mason Kilabuk, and later joined by Iain Grundke from DOT. This huge team effort allowed us to have eight extremely successful survey days in August. We carried out a scientific echosounding survey, oceanographic cage casts, zooplankton net samples, whale tagging, drone photogrammetry and biopsies. This has provided an immensely rich dataset that can now be used to look at a whole suite of research questions from zooplankton species composition to bowhead whale energetics and the application of eDNA sampling technology.
As a lucky coincidence, the UK Arctic Science conference (UKASC) was being held just three weeks after my return from fieldwork. I submitted and had an abstract accepted before leaving for the field and the Scottish Arctic Network (ScAN) put out a call for their ECR travel grant not long after. I was out in Canada when I heard my application was successful, allowing me to book train travel and accommodation.
The UKASC was held at the British Antarctic Survey’s Aurora Innovation Centre, and researchers and policymakers travelled from around the country and internationally. The conference was held both in person and online to allow broader participation. As well as a huge diversity of natural science presentations spanning chemistry, geography, glaciology, biology, remote sensing and AI, there were art-science collaborations and social science research. There was a strong focus on indigenous community involvement with Arctic science and the importance of working with communities from the very start of projects so indigenous priorities can shape research questions. This really reflected my experience in Pangnirtung, where engaging with the Hunter and Tracker’s Organization on their ideas and concerns was critical, and we benefitted enormously from the local knowledge of our boat operators.
On the second day of the conference, I gave a presentation on the bowhead project, the data we collected in August and our plans for analysis. The process of defining our progress and aims into a ten-minute presentation was extremely valuable in itself, and it was even more valuable to get the feedback of the UK Arctic science community. I was fascinated to see overlap with other projects modelling the impacts of climate change on Arctic megafauna, from caribou migrations to walrus haul-outs and the northwards expansion of beavers. It was also extremely interesting to see new tools that are being developed to model and predict sea ice concentration and thickness in the Arctic.
In addition to scientific presentations and posters, there were panel discussions on equality, diversity and inclusion and on moving towards net zero. I think it’s extremely valuable for Arctic scientists to get together and discuss these issues that face all aspects of modern society, and how we should approach them as a community. I had the chance to meet many incredibly interesting and knowledgeable scientists in polar research over the three days, and the opportunity to attend the UK Polar Network’s pre-conference event for ECRs, where we talked about how early career scientists can develop leadership and networking skills.
I’m incredibly grateful to ScAN for providing me with funding to attend this conference and share my work, which has provided me with new ways of thinking and ideas to take forward. I couldn’t be more excited to get back into the field next year, and hope that in two years’ time I will have some exciting results to share at the next UKASC.