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Show and tell

Nicole Sanscartier of Rothesay, N.B., measures temperature and conductivity at different ocean depths in the waters of Denmark Strait, between Greenland and Iceland.
(Photo: Robert Vanwaarden)
Listen up, class. Today’s lesson is on retreating glaciers. Your assignment: motor away from a Russian research vessel in a Zodiac, land on the coast of Greenland, toss a few leaves into a stream of glacial runoff, measure their speed and the water depth, perform some calculations, and tell the world how quickly the ice is melting. Just a typical day for 28 high school students aboard the sixth annual Cape Farewell expedition, a two-week voyage from Iceland to Iqaluit that took place last September. The trip, which was funded by the British Council and supported by The Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS), brought together students from every Canadian province and territory and from six other countries, plus a team of scientists and artists. In addition to fieldwork and art projects (and fighting two-metre swells), the students were encouraged to think creatively and collaboratively about the spectre of climate change.

“It’s as if I was walking in one of my textbooks,” says 17-year-old Lily Jackson, a grade 12 student at Belmont Secondary School in Victoria, who has been sharing videos, photos and stories from the trip with her classmates since returning home. “I wasn’t just reading or looking at pictures — I was there. And I saw how what we do in the South is affecting people in the North. It’s not about the future. It’s about now.”

Luisa Lizoain of Toronto (at left) and Victor Curi of Brazil make music out of rusted refuse at the site of an abandoned weather station on Padloping Island, Nunavut.
(Photo: Robert Vanwaarden)
Jackson, who is planning an exhibit of images and music inspired by the Arctic landscape, wasn’t convinced before setting sail that science and art could coexist. But at Padloping Island, off the coast of Baffin Island, amid the detritus of an abandoned Cold War-era weather station, Carleton University geography professor Chris Burn gave an impromptu lecture about the elements that come together on that island: people and wilderness, land and water, ice and bare ground. Then students lined up discarded oil drums, pieces of pipe and rusting tractor parts and banged out a song as a junk orchestra. “A beautiful sound,” says Jackson, “out of something so ugly.”

Burn, a permafrost researcher and a vice-president of the RCGS, had never worked alongside collaborators such as Colette Laliberté, an Ontario visual artist and professor. But their left-brain counsel — asking students, for instance, to study the texture of rocks — added richness to the scientific observations. “In the beginning,” says Burn, “the students were gobsmacked by an environment unlike anything they had seen before. But as the voyage went on, they were able to pick up threads that connected one place to another. If you see things in a different way, your mind looks for new interpretations.”

— Dan Rubinstein

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