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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. Photo by Riley Brandt

By Sean Myers 

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.  

Combing through 400 years of colourful data

Her team also includes postdoctoral fellow 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.”

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. 

2015 Insight Grants to Faculty of Arts researchers

  • Shelley Alexander ($111,254.00):“Human-Coyote Relationships in the Foothills Parkland Region of Alberta. Department of Geography
  • Bart Beaty ($280,879.00): What Were Comics?: Understanding Typicality in the Cultural Industries.
  • Susan Bennett ($103,382.00): “Brand Performance and the Mega-Event Experience. Department of English
  • Christian Bok ($97,564.00): Conceptual Literature: Writing at the Limits of Writing. Department of English
  • George Colpitts ($87,385.00): Treaty Trade: Cash and the Monetization of Aboriginal-Newcomer Relations in Canada 1874-1925. Department of History.
  • Hendrik Kraay ($114,937.00): From Entrudo to Carnaval in Brazil. Department of History.
  • Sheri Madigan ($128,715.00): Person and Environment Influences in the Development of Prosociality in Young Children.” Department of Psychology.
  • Maribeth Murray ($245,332.00): Northern Seas: An Interdisciplinary Study of Human/Marine and Climate System Interactions in Arctic North America over the Last Millennium. Department of Archeology.
  • Alan Smart ($94,828.00): Formalizing Hong Kong: Explaining governmental strategies to formalize urban informality.” Department of Anthropology.
  • Charles Tepperman ($88,840.00): Mapping an Alternative Film History: A Database of Significant Amateur Films (1928-1971). Department of Communication and Culture
  • Melanee Thomas ($213,546.00): Psychological Orientations to Politics, Gendered Stereotype Threat, and Democratic Citizenship. Department of Political Science.
  • Trevor Tombe ($90,922.00): The Gains from Trade and Labour Mobility. Department of Economics.
  • Aritha Van Herk ($132,840.00): A Creative Biography of Canadian Writer Robert Kroetsch. Department of English.
  • Susan Graham ($273,997.00): Communicative Development During the Preschool Years. Department of Psychology


2015 Insight Development Grants to Faculty of Arts researchers

  • Stefan Staubli Muehlenbachs ($30,215.00): How Does Raising Women''s Full Retirement Age Affect Labor Supply, Income, and Mortality? Department of Economics.
  • Candace Konnert ($34,039.00): Planning for Future Dependency: A Mixed Methods Study. Department of Psychology.
  • Charles Tepperman ($34,098.00): Film Production Culture in Canada: Case Study of a Creative Producer. Department of Communication and Culture.
  • Kunio Tsuyuhara ($51,180.00): A New Approach to International Trade and Labour Market Research.” Department of Economics.
  • Bart Beaty ($65,272.00): Understanding Charlie Hebdo in its Cultural Contexts. Department of English.
  • Joanna Redden ($71,500.00): Big Data and Social Governance: Investigating the United States and the United Kingdom. Department of Communications and Culture.
  • Sheri Madigan ($73,600.00): An Individual Participant Data Review on the Intergenerational Transmission of Attachment. Department of Psychology.
  • Dean Curran ($74,308.00): Who are the "Risk Takers"? Department of Sociology.
  • Michael Adorjan ($67,428.00): Cyber-Risk,Youth and Community: Digital Citizenship in Canada. Department of Sociology.