SOI @ IMPAC4 Blog: Cassandra Elphinstone

While Students on Ice participates in the International Marine Protected Areas Congress (IMPAC4) in La Serena-Coquimbo, Chile, our delegation of 9 students from coast-to-coast-to-coast in Canada will be sharing their experiences and stories through blogs, photos, and videos.

Below is a blog post from Cassandra Elphinstone, an alum of the 2011 Arctic Expedition. Cassandra is grateful for sponsorship from the Leacross Foundation to participate in IMPAC4.

Land and Sea

Wildlife photography with Cassandra. Photo: Jessica Winters

This week I have learned how deeply connected the land and sea are. Earlier this year I had a conversation with a researcher at the Polar Continental Shelf Program (PCSP) who studied the Arctic Ocean with Oceans Networks Canada. He introduced me to the concept that, in the Arctic, the land and sea have a close relationship. I began to think of observations from my Arctic field work this summer and quickly realized how true this was.

This summer the sea ice stayed until unusually late. The late melting of the sea allowed the seals to continue to use the ice until late in the season. The seals on the ice in turn kept the polar bears off the land.  The lack of bears wandering through our camp was a wonderful contrast to past years when bear encounters seemed inevitable. This year, the cold temperatures that caused the sea ice to stay late also seemed to change the land ecosystem.  The diversity and abundance of terrestrial wildlife was much lower than I had noted in the previous three years. Far fewer birds migrated to our site. The lemmings which had gone through an enormous population boom last year were nowhere to be seen. The tundra plants all flowered later and it felt as though winter stayed through what was normally spring.

In our delegation, there are five students from northern Canada. They all pointed out that in their communities when traveling or hunting on the ocean they would say they were out on the “land”. No difference was attributed to the two ecosystems. After noticing the close connections between the land and the ocean this summer, I better understand why these two ecosystems are not distinct in the north.

Photo: Cassandra Elphinstone

At the conference, it was interesting to see how some of the presentations on Marine Protected Areas discussed the importance and the connections between the terrestrial and marine ecosystems.  I began to realize that the Arctic regions are not the only ones where land and sea are closely linked. One talk on the Great Barrier Reef described how cyclones cause increased freshwater runoff into the coral reefs. The increased runoff causes more nutrients in the water which in turn increases starfish populations. The starfish eat the coral. As a result, the change in the amount of freshwater and nutrients coming off the land affects the ability of the coral to survive. In North America, studies have been done investigating the isotope ratios of certain nutrients in trees. Scientists were puzzled as to why certain isotopes normally solely associated with the ocean were being found in trees miles/kilometers from the sea. It turned out that salmon spawning up the rivers take the ocean’s nutrients inland. Bears drag the salmon out of the rivers and into the forest. The fish decompose and the nutrients are taken up by the trees.

I believe that understanding these complex connections will be fundamental in order for conservation science to be able to adequately deal with future challenges. Protecting the ocean and the land in concert will be essential for ensuring the survival of both of these ecosystems.

Cassandra Elphinstone

I recently graduated with a BSc in Honours Conservation Biology at UBC.  In 2011, while participating in a Students On Ice (SOI) Arctic expedition, I discovered my fascination with Arctic and alpine regions. Since then, I have written policy papers for the Youth Arctic Coalition and the SOI Rio +20 Summit Delegation. As founder of GAIAactivism, a non-profit organization with the goal of locally getting people outdoors to help create a global appreciation for nature, I organized communities from North America, Asia, Africa, and Europe into a 2012 “Day of Gathering”. During the summer of 2013, I went to camp on a remote beach in Costa Rica studying the dry tropical rainforest adjacent to a sea turtle nesting beach and wrote a draft proposal to the Costa Rican government encouraging them to protect the area as a National Reserve.  For the last four summers (2014-17) I have worked as a field assistant/graduate student at Alexandra Fiord on Ellesmere Island.  In the future, I plan to continue with my interest in Arctic and alpine plant research by studying genetic and epigenetic adaptions to climate.  In my spare time, I enjoy organizing and leading climbing, mountaineering, and backcountry skiing trips.

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This website was made possible by a generous contribution from the Leacross Foundation.