Discovery Grant opens passage to the Arctic

October 27, 2016

NSERC grant allows researcher to explore changes to the Arctic ecosystem

Assistant Professor Anna Pieńkowski has her research plans mapped out for the next few years. Thanks to her Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Discovery Grant, Anna has access to $105,000 over five years to study the Arctic-Atlantic gateway of the Northwest Passage.

“The Arctic is amazingly vast,” says the Earth and Planetary Sciences faculty member. “Whenever I give talks outside of Canada, I tell audiences that Ellesmere Island, west of Greenland, is the size of the U.K., which is just mind blowing.”

That huge region’s ecosystem holds the secrets to Earth’s past climate changes—from which Anna can collect data that will enable her to draw parallels to the present and help inform predictions for the future.

“All these environmental changes we've seen in the north come with lots of baggage, whether you think about the physical environment and ecosystem changes, or changes in politics and economics,” she explains.

Next steps

In August and September, Anna took part in an expedition through the Arctic aboard the CCGS Amundsen research icebreaker through the Northwest Passage. Her Discovery Grant research builds on her continued work with the seafloor mapping collaboration.

READ MORE: Follow Anna’s blog for the latest news of her Arctic adventure.

Actual observations of sea ice decline are merely a blip in the history of Arctic Canada. To really understand what’s going on (and to be able to predict what’s going to happen in the future), Anna is taking a much deeper look into what happened to the region over the last 20,000 years, since the demise of the great ice sheets that covered the area.

“My Discovery Grant research is concerned with how the marine environments of the Canadian Arctic have changed since the last ice age in that region, and how that environmental progression or evolution occurs,” she explains.

Anna requires long-term data sets to make any kind of prediction about the ecosystem, sea ice, ocean currents, physiography and environment.

“The data come from sediment cores recovered from the ocean floor,” she explains. “These archives can be systematically studied in terms of their physical, chemical and biological characteristics. For example, we look at microscopically small preserved fossils whose shells can be analyzed chemically and which can give clues about past ocean temperature, salinity and sea ice cover.”

It’s a big project, and Anna’s recent work in the Arctic wasn’t her first and it won’t be her last thanks to the NSERC Discovery Grant.

“It's an extreme privilege and I'm over the moon to have received this funding,” says Anna. “Not just me but Sam Mugo getting it is a huge honour for MacEwan. It also comes with a lot of great student opportunities to get the research going. The research is never possible without input from many people including students.”

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