Posted Online: May 31, 2012, 8:56 am

Arctic bound: Q-C researchers collect valuable data from the far north

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By Sarah J. Gardner,

Photo: J. Johnson
Dr. Kurt Burnham and Dr. Jennifer Burnham on a research trip to northwest Greenland.
Photo: J. Johnson
A large colony of Dovekies flying out of a valley in Greenland.
Just as it does for a lot of summer travelers, the trip Dr. Kurt Burnham and Dr. Jennifer Burnham are preparing to embark upon this month means sunshine and lots of it. In fact, the pair of researchers, both professors at Augustana College in Rock Island, won't see nightfall again until they return in August.

Kurt, a wildlife biologist, and Jennifer, a geographer, spend the summer in northwest Greenland travelling from island to island to gather information on 25 different species of birds — the majority of the species living at that latitude — through the High Arctic Institute, a conservation, research and education organization that uses Thule Air Base as its base of operations in the summer. That far north, the arctic sun shines 24 hours a day.

A typical day in the field begins with loading the research gear onto a boat. Then the team travels 40 to 100 miles across the open sea, surveys the island where they are to work, rappels over the cliffs to access the nesting sites, captures and bands the birds, and takes blood samples and measurements before moving on to the next nest. The researchers can work all through the night and into the next day, thanks to the midnight sun. Once, trying to get as much work done as possible between storm systems, the team logged 30 hours of work in a single stretch.

All that sunlight doesn't prevent them from falling asleep once they return to Thule Air Base, however. "I always say if you can't adjust, it just means you haven't worked hard enough," says Kurt with a grin.

The blood samples they take from the birds are used in Jennifer's research. She compares levels of methylmercury found in the samples to levels found in birds at lower latitudes. The mercury is discharged by coal-fired plants into the upper atmosphere, which acts as a conduit to the arctic. There the mercury precipitates to the ground and bioaccumulates in animal species — meaning creatures contaminated with the heavy metal (which acts as a neurotoxin) pass it on to the larger animals that eat them, resulting in higher and higher levels of mercury the further up the food chain you go.

As a result of Jennifer's research, it's possible to trace the effects of human activity thousands of miles away on species living in an area with a much sparser human population. "This place we think of as pristine and clean actually is pretty polluted, which is unfortunate," she says.

Kurt's research focuses on the peregrine falcon and the gyrfalcon. He founded the High Arctic Institute in 2006 and serves as its president and CEO. Current research projects examine the likely effect of climate change on the falcons and other bird populations that nest in Greenland, according to the organization's website,

Neither researcher set out initially to do work in the climate field, but the birds, which come to the Arctic to raise their young and are thus very susceptible to changes in weather patterns, "drew us to climate change," says Jennifer.

In some cases, that simply means gathering data that can be used in the future as a basis of comparison. Even in cases where there is already data for comparison, explains Jennifer, the birds exist in complex natural systems that can make it difficult to attribute short term changes purely to one factor. For this reason, all climate change research requires continued, long-term monitoring.

During the decades the Burnhams have been travelling to the arctic, they have observed anecdotal evidence of climate change apart from their research. Sea ice that used to render the coastal waters impassable now breaks up earlier in the season, and rain falls in Thule during the summer months now instead of snow. There is also one change that has proven to be a particular nuisance. "Mosquitos," says Kurt. "Until the last decade, we never had to deal with them up there."

Sarah J. Gardner is editor of Radish. You can follow the Burnhams and read posts from their upcoming research trip by clicking on the "field notes" button at