Working with Inuit Community Is Part of Scientific Expedition

Release Date: May 16, 2007 This content is archived.


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Elizabeth Thomas, a UB graduate student in geology, shows off her gear, including polycarbonate tubes for lake sediment coring, that she will take on a scientific expedition to the Arctic to study climate change.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Research on global warming is drawing scientists in increasing numbers to the world's polar regions. But as scientists make more journeys northward, some of them find that their mission now extends beyond the ice or sediment samples they will bring back to their labs to analyze.

When Elizabeth Thomas, a graduate student in the University at Buffalo Department of Geology, travels this month to Baffin Island in the northeast Canadian Arctic, she not only will be sampling sediments from the bottom of frozen lakes, she also will be educating a native Inuit class about global warming, taking local schoolchildren on a sediment-coring field trip and may participate in a call-in radio show with translators that will be broadcast in Inuktitut, the local language.

"We go up there to do research and the local community gives us so much logistical support, I thought we should really give something back to them," said Thomas who leaves Thursday for Baffin Island in the Nunavut territory of Canada.

Thomas is traveling with a team funded by the National Science Foundation and led by Jason Briner, Ph.D., assistant professor of geology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, who has been conducting research on Baffin Island for seven years

Briner and his students travel to the region in the spring to sample Arctic lake sediments and analyze them to reconstruct past climates. Arctic regions show strong seasonality, so it's relatively easy to correlate changes with very fine layers in sediments.

Based in Clyde River, a Nunavut town of about 800 residents, the UB scientists will study fjords to see how fast glaciers retreat, gather data to reconstruct temperature changes over the past 2,000 years and study other phenomena that may help them better predict how climate change will affect the rest of the planet.

To Thomas, who's making her fourth trip to the Arctic, that's only part of the picture.

She noted that the scientists, who drive snowmobiles across the tundra and sea ice sometimes for hours until they reach a good sampling site, have come to depend on -- and befriend -- the local Inuit.

"They help us fix our snow machines," Thomas said. "If we're lost or stuck, they'll come out and get us, they give us advice about where we are headed and tell us if one route is more dangerous, if there are big cracks in the sea ice," she said. "It's their backyard and these people are going to be directly impacted by global warming."

That's why she felt compelled in the short amount of time she will be in Baffin Island to make an effort to communicate to the local community what the research team is doing and what global warming may mean for them.

"The greatest threat from climate change to the Inuit is the loss of their traditional way of life," she said, particularly the ability to hunt seals and other animals on the edge of the sea ice.

Thomas said that her hope is that the educational process will go both ways, with the Inuit possibly finding ways to communicate with 'Southerners' as the Inuit call people who live in southern Canada and the U.S.

"Maybe the neatest thing that could happen is that they will make an impact on us," Thomas said.

"It would be neat for them to maybe try to influence people 'down south' to show us how their way of life may be destroyed by greenhouse gas emissions from down south," she said.

Her hope is that her efforts this spring will inspire some members of the Inuit community, especially children, to want to communicate on an ongoing basis with 'southerners,' possibly as penpals.

Currently, it is still cold and snowy on Baffin Island, so the UB team will be conducting its research, wearing U.S. Army-issue "bunny" boots and dressing in clothing that allows them to withstand temperatures that may go as low as twenty degrees below zero.

In addition to Briner and Thomas, other members of the UB team who will be working on Baffin Island this spring include Aaron Bini, a graduate student in the Department of Geology and James R. Noble III and Monica Ridgeway, both undergraduate geology majors at UB.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York. UB's more than 27,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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