Hopes for the first field school for Arctic snow

Researchers, students and hunters are coming together in Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay) to learn from each other about snow in the High Arctic.

  • Published Mar 29, 2023
  • Updated Mar 30
  • 1,137 words
  • 5 minutes
Five people in orange suits stand close together, waist deep in snow in an Arctic landscape. In the foreground is metal-looking machinery sat on top of the snow. It is a sunny day and there are dark hills in the background.
Sentinel North Field School on Arctic Marine Ecosystems Services brought together 40 scientists from different disciplines such as physics, marine biology, biochemistry, and human health onboard the Canadian research icebreaker CCGS Amundsen in 2018, in Baffin Bay and Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut. (Photo: Sentinel North, Université Laval)
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Alexandre Langlois remembers the first field school for snow he attended more than two decades ago. It was 2002. He was a graduate student and the school was taking place in Rovaniemi and Kilpisjärvi in Finland.

Langlois can recall the feelings and the friendships vividly. “The excitement, the passion of the students — it really reflects how we were at that age.”

Flash forward to today and the University of Sherbrooke professor is co-lead for a snow school taking place here in Canada — at the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) in Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay), Nunavut, from April 1 to 8.

This is the first school of its kind to be focused entirely on Arctic snow and Langlois — along with Université Laval professor Florent Domine — is bringing together students, Inuit hunters and researchers from across disciplines as diverse as physics, geography, meteorology and ecology. The goal? To study Arctic snow in a way that may provide insight on how climate change is impacting communities on the ground.

The field school in Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay) is not only the first to focus on Arctic snow but the first to centre Inuit knowledge within scientific and transdisciplinary perspectives.

An Inuit man wearing furs speaks to a group of students who are wearing red jackets with their hoods up. It is a sunny day and the ground is snow.
Inuk igloo master Solomon Awa explains how to build an igloo to the participants of the Sentinel North International Arctic Field School on the Changing Cryosphere, Iqaluit, March 2018. The idea was to bring together both Inuit and western scientific perspectives on snow. (Photo: Sentinel North, Université Laval)
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This is important to Sharlyne Fay Umphrey, one of four Inuit students in the environmental technology program at the Nunavut Arctic College in Iqaluit who will be participating.

For her, the Arctic Snow School is a way to bridge the gap between the past and the future: between the lived experience with climate change that many Inuit have over time, and the scientific research that can help determine the extent and impact of climate change in the Arctic moving forward.

“On a personal level, [this school] just brings more awareness to how real climate change is and how fast approaching it is, especially in the Arctic,” Umphrey says. “And seeing the conditions change and vary from year to year, it is a concern in our communities as an Inuk.”

The school will also be the first field school to take place in the High Arctic. “It’s really hard to access communities for all kinds of reasons, for example, it costs a lot of money to go to the Arctic,” Langlois says. “So the area is still poorly monitored not because we don’t want to [monitor it], but because it’s logistically and financially very difficult to access.”

A joint project between Sentinel North at Université Laval and the Groupe de Recherche Interdisciplinaire sur les Milieux Polaires (GRIMP) at the University of Sherbrooke, the Arctic Snow School seizes the opportunity to understand what makes snow in the region different from that found in other parts of the world.

It’s also an opportunity to incorporate the history, lived experience and perspectives of Inuit who have lived on, and stewarded, this landscape for thousands of years.

“I’m looking forward … just to see collaboration and clash between experience and knowledge and what we can learn from each other,” Umphrey said.

A white man in a black puffer jacket and a grey hat stands against a rocky background, with ice-covered mountains sloping to the sky.
Alexandre Langlois is one of the field school co-leads (Photo: courtesy Marie-Audrey Spain)
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A white man wearing a hat crouches in the snow holding what looks like a small metal block. In front of him is an open yellow box and there are lots of measuring devices scattered around.
Florent Domine is one of the co-leads of the field school. (Photo: courtesy Florent Domine)
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According to Domine, co-lead of the school, it is essential to study Arctic snow because of its unique physical properties and the valuable role it plays in the lives of those who live here.

Arctic snow is interesting, he says, because of how different it is from alpine snow, which has been studied across the world, especially over the past three decades.

“I’ll give you an example: if you’re in the Alps, there’s about maybe 1.5 metres of snow and there’s dense snow at the bottom and light snow at the top because the weight of the snow compacts the lower layers,” Domine says. “In the Arctic, it’s the opposite: the light snow makes the base and the dense snow layers are at the top. This means the main snow processes are completely different.”

The problem, Domine says, is that almost all the scientists in the world rely on what has been known for alpine snow, and they apply it to Arctic snow. “But it just does not work.”

Domine says having an accurate understanding of Arctic snow will be essential for climate adaptation and mitigation measures in the region.

When building adaptable and resilient local infrastructure, for example, knowing the specific physical properties of Arctic snow will determine the success of such construction.

Along with its physical properties, snow in the Arctic is also unique in how closely it is tied to the Inuit way of life.

This is one of the many reasons why including Inuit knowledge and voices are essential to the work taking place at the snow school: it’s an opportunity to cross-pollinate ideas and collaborate on solutions for changing conditions in the region.

“Inuit are going to be able to exchange with the students how they view changes, how they understand the evolution of their environment and how they’re affected by it,” Domine said.

“It’s certainly not for us to tell people that live there how they should adapt. We’ve got to listen to them, exchange ideas and possibly bring assistance. But adaptation strategies have to come from them, hopefully through discussions with us.”

“Seeing the conditions change and vary from year to year, it is a concern in our communities as an Inuk.”

Sharlyne Fay Umphrey

Roughly 40 researchers, students and Inuit hunters from Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and beyond will be participating in the Arctic Snow School led by Langlois and Domine.

Over the course of the eight days at CHARS, the group will work together to conduct field campaigns, involving studying snow physics, landscape changes and using remote sensing technology such as microwave and optical sensors.

They will also be able to have conversations with each other and the community of Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay) to exchange knowledge and lived experience.

With international graduate students as well as Inuit studying in the environmental technology program at the Nunavut Arctic College, Domine and Langlois both hope the younger generation learns about the science behind Arctic snow, together with Inuit knowledge and lived experience.

“The idea is not to tell students ‘this is how it is,’” Domine says. “The idea is to look at snow and get them to try to explain what they see and how they interpret it.”

Langlois echoes this sentiment, adding that ultimately, “what’s great about these field schools is that you see those connections between students and [the community].”

“Eventually, they will be future colleagues leading the charge when I and my colleagues retire.”

The days will be long and the work will be rigorous. But among the many harboured hopes for this field school, perhaps most important is to build a community that not only learns from each other, but with each other.


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