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09/07/2018

Canadian Trip Offered Amazing Experience in Manitoba Province

Quick Facts

 Associate Professor Scott Werts led the group to what is known as the polar bear and beluga whale capital of the world as part of his Subarctic Landscape class.
 They met in the spring for lectures, then traveled to Churchill, Canada, Aug. 1 at the height of the whale migration season.

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ROCK HILL, SOUTH CAROLINA – An all-female team of Winthrop University students traveled in August to Canada to view two disappearing species: the polar bear and the beluga whale.

Associate Professor Scott Werts led the group to what is known as the polar bear and beluga whale capital of the world as part of his Subarctic Landscape class. They met in the spring for lectures, then traveled to Churchill, Canada, Aug. 1 at the height of the whale migration season. “This area of the world isn’t accessible by road so it isn’t seen by many people,” Werts said, adding that the team reached the site by airplane.

During their stay, Werts and the eight students remained busy. They studied three distinctive subarctic environments, walked on some of the oldest rocks on the planet, explored previously glaciated terrain, dipped their feet into the Hudson Bay, watched the Northern Lights at night and spent a morning kayaking with beluga whales.

Senior Mikayla Mangle of Simpsonville, South Carolina, said the trip was a one-of-a-kind experience. “We were there for 10 days, and every day we did something new and exciting,” said the environmental studies and political science major, who raved about seeing the Northern Lights almost nightly.

Werts hoped for that star struck reaction. To prepare the students, Werts spend the spring classes discussing the environmental aspects of the subarctic: the climate, the soils, the botany, zoology, geology, the marine systems, terrestrial, the history and the area’s culture.

They conducted preliminary field studies, such as learning to dig a soil pit, analyzing the soils in fertile and unfertile areas, and learning how to measure incredibly tall objects such as trees by using angles and trigonometry. They also practiced how to core trees properly to estimate the tree age.

Werts said one goal was to compare the amount of carbon taken up in the trees per year locally in the Southeast versus what happens in the subarctic. “Our trees, and plants in general, take up a whole lot more annually than they do in the subarctic,” Werts said. “The students saw it is the opposite with the soils, in a lot of ways. We have much less carbon stored from the atmosphere in ours compared to what is up there. One of the worries is that the carbon cycle dynamics up there are changing quickly.”

He also worked into the class some social science lessons so the Winthrop students could study the native residents and their challenges living in remote areas.

Once in Canada, the group used the Churchill Northern Studies Centre in the Manitoba province as its base. The centre provides dorm style rooms, hot food, laboratory space and all the support the group needed, especially during adverse weather conditions. The students also set up weather stations and observed polar bears from a distance.

This is only the second time the Subarctic Landscape class has been offered at Winthrop. Werts said the students, who varied from biology to elementary education to theatre majors, traveled to a part of the world that few people visit.

Mangle was glad she took the class. “In all it was such a great experience and I am so happy I got the privilege to experience it,” she said.

For more information, contact Werts at wertss@winthrop.edu.


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