We’re delighted to be welcoming Dr. Stephen Cumbaa—vertebrate paleontologist, veteran Arctic researcher, Canadian Museum of Nature rep, and children’s author—aboard our 2014 Northwest Passage: West to East voyage this summer. We asked Steve to tell us what excites him about a return to the Far North aboard an expedition cruise.
You’ve spent lots of time up in the Arctic over the years. What’s the allure?
Fording an Arctic river
As a former museum scientist, I’m one of those lucky people who feel as if I had one of the best jobs in the world: being paid to explore remote places and to share my fossil discoveries with other paleontologists and with the public through exhibits, articles, talks and interviews.
My expeditions to the Arctic were particularly memorable; each trip north an absolute adventure. Over and above the excitement of discovering more evidence of ancient life, the clean, clear air, the amazing quality of light, and the remote, pristine wilderness of the Arctic still captivate me.
Undeniably, a big part of the allure is the promise of discovery; the secrets of Earth’s past accessible to those who look a little closer, or walk a little farther. Little is truly hidden in the Arctic. At times the landscape itself can seem almost aware; for example, the feeling of being among the first to set foot in a particular spot is heady, but even those footprints sometimes seem intrusive. The Arctic is vast; the potential for significant discoveries immense, and the number of scientists working there is pitifully small.
What sites/sights are you looking forward to seeing on this particular journey?
I’ve spent several months doing fieldwork and camping in the Arctic islands, ferried about by Twin Otter airplanes and helicopters, but I’ve never seen the High Arctic from the unique vantage point of a ship, and its Zodiacs for shore excursions.
The opportunity for wildlife sightings is amazing with this kind of travel. Years ago I worked with archaeologists from Parks Canada, examining bones and other food refuse relating to Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition and the subsequent search parties, but other than Beechey Island, this will be my first opportunity to see some of those storied localities first hand.
Fossil fish found in the Far North
All along our route there are paleontological localities, such as near Kugluktuk, where Ice-Age fossil fishes have been found; the eastern coast of Somerset Island with its 400+ million year-old fish fossils; Beechey Island with its beach composed largely of fossil corals and other tropical invertebrates; and Bylot Island, opposite the community of Pond Inlet, where the fossil remains of dinosaurs, birds and marine reptiles have been discovered.
In terms of your own work, what are you most looking forward to sharing while aboard?
I’d really like to help give my fellow passengers a sense of the time depth of life in the Arctic, and the way the islands have moved about the globe as a result of what geologists term continental drift.
Today, we think of the Arctic as defined by glaciers, icebergs, seals and polar bears. But four hundred million years ago, most of the Arctic was a shallow tropical sea near the equator; its iconic animals were primitive fish, trilobites, and shelled, squid-like creatures. No animals existed on land.
Between then and now, the Arctic islands gradually moved toward their present location, over time populated sequentially by dinosaurs and birds with teeth, forests with 100 foot-tall trees, rhinoceroses and lemur-like primates, camels, and yes, even primitive beavers. I look forward to sharing these and more stories through presentations and informal chats on board and on our shore excursions.
Steve with the petrified remains of an Arctic forest
You’ll be representing the Canadian Museum of Nature aboard. How does this trip relate to the work of the CMN?
One of the museum’s great strengths is its Arctic expertise. Our exhibits and collections contain plant, animal, fossil and mineral specimens brought back by researchers over the last 150 years or more, and are still growing.
These are hugely valuable collections for researchers all over the world. Under an agreement with the government of Nunavut, the museum also houses and curates Nunavut’s collections. The museum currently has a big Arctic science initiative, with active field programs focusing on biodiversity and response to climate change in vascular plants, marine and freshwater diatoms, and in my area of expertise, vertebrate paleontology.
Finally, what do you hope our visitors to the Arctic come away with, after their journey?
I think we will all return from the voyage with a sense that we’ve experienced extraordinary places, and learned a great deal about the special nature of the Arctic, its history, its plants and animals through time, and its people.
My own appreciation for and admiration of the Inuit people and their predecessors as well as the early European Arctic explorers grows with each visit to this often-harsh environment.
It’s impossible to see the evidence of rapidly melting glaciers and the tenuous hold that plants and animals have on life there without becoming aware of the fragility of the Arctic ecosystem, the human impact on it, and worrying about its future. However, I also hope our visitors will come back with a renewed appreciation of long-term ecosystem evolution and change over the last few hundred million years. The Arctic, whether tropical or polar in nature, has always been a special place, a resilient place.
This resiliency – the ability of life to bounce back from the severe stressors of environmental change – is clearly demonstrable in the Arctic, and is cause for hope.
Photos courtesy Steve Cumbaa – Canadian Museum of Nature.