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May 1, 2018

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“Summing up three years of work, in plain language, in a one-minute video – that was really a challenge,” says Branden Walker, Geography and Environmental Studies master’s student at Wilfrid Laurier University and research associate to Professor Phil Marsh. “But it was important to share our research and show people what it’s like and where we work.”

In order to elevate awareness around Walker’s research, based at the Trail Valley Creek research site in the Northwest Territories, Walker edited together footage collected over years of visiting the research site to create a short video.

“I was swamped at the time, but it was a really fun distraction,” said Walker. “Filming in the North is hard, it’s so cold electronics don’t always work. But I thought, ‘let’s see how this goes.’”

He submitted the video to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) video competition “Science, Action!” where it made the Top 75 selection. 

Trail Valley beginnings

While studying at Laurier for his undergraduate degree, Walker began working with Marsh to re-establish Trail Valley Creek, a field site that had been collecting data since the 1990s.

In one of his first field research experiences, Walker was dropped off by a helicopter in the middle of the Arctic tundra with no one around except two other researchers. It was windy and freezing rain, but he was charged with the task of collecting soil moisture measurements for a few hours. Should anything go wrong, Walker and his research colleagues were alone.

“I remember thinking, ‘this is terrible, but I love it,’” says Walker. “We’re trained in backcountry first-aid.”

Since then, Walker has been back to Trail Valley Creek multiple times over the past four years, conducting fieldwork through all seasons. Though the freezing weather and deep snow made for exhausting conditions, Walker was hooked.

“I never thought I’d be involved in research like this.”

Walker has made himself indispensable to Trail Valley Creek. With experience building decks, he was able to provide a helping hand to build the platforms that would establish the site and became Marsh’s research associate.

“Trail Valley Creek is sort of my home away from home,” says Walker. “I helped build it and I’ve seen it change and grow over the years.”

Trail Valley Creek largely collects data about climate, snow and water levels, as well as permafrost and forest ecology. The remote area has changed dramatically over the past 30 years since it was originally established by Marsh while working for Environment Canada. The site is particularly interesting as it covers an area close to the tree line but is also mixed with tundra.

“The entire western Arctic has experienced drastic changes, which we see in the data sets collected at Trail Valley Creek,” says Walker. “As researchers, we get to study a system in motion and our aim is to try to predict what will happen in the future.”

Adapting to the future

The research findings from Trail Valley Creek help to inform northern communities how to plan and adapt for the future.

For instance, the City of Yellowknife must predict how much additional water to bring into the community in order to serve the needs of the city; how much snow accumulates or melts has a huge impact on how much water resources the city has.

“You have to know there is a problem before you can solve it,” says Walker. “The impacts of climate warming are irreversible for Northern communities. We’re focusing on helping them adapt to these new changes. Snow is the most important part of the hydrological systems in the North, and for all of Canada. The data we collect at these research stations helps improve our understanding of the physical processes and interactions across the western Arctic. This helps contribute to the ongoing literature around climate change in the North.”

Find out more about Laurier's northern research initiative

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