| Sep 04, 2008

Sept 4, 2008 - On Top of the World

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Feature Article - September 4, 2008 Kate Howes: On top of the WorldBy Jule Koch Brison with material from an article by Alison Leppard

Kate Howes of Parham spent four months last winter literally on top of the world!

Kate, the daughter of Ken & Lori Howes, is a fourth year environment and resource studies student at the University of Waterloo, and her co-op placement last winter was at the Canadian Forces Station (CFS) in Alert, Nunavut, working for Environment Canada. Getting there involved two days in the back of a “Herc” military plane, with a stop in Resolute Bay and an overnight stop in Thule, Greenland, finally arriving at Alert on January 12 to 24-hour darkness.

Alert is the most northern community in the world. Primarily a military base, it is also a Global Atmospheric Watch (GAW) station. The GAW stations are a part of an lnternational effort by the United Nations to understand how industrialization is affecting the environment. Alert's data is especially significant because it is far removed from the industrial world. Kate's main duties were to change air filters and collect air and snow samples.

Asked what it was like living in 24-hour darkness, she said, “It felt like I was on the moon, but it wasn’t as hard to deal with as I had thought it would be”. That was because the base, which is home to between 50 and 100 people, had lots of activities - gyms, a bowling alley, sports tournaments (like a 24-hour ball hockey competition), movie nights, bingo, a library, interest clubs, and even two bars. There were also organized field trips off base.

Every day Kate was able to see changes in the light. Soon after she arrived they began to have twilight around noon, and every day it got a bit brighter. “It was wonderful being able to see more and more of the landscape, because when I arrived I couldn’t see anything at all,” she said. The base celebrated an annual sunrise ceremony around February 12, which was when they thought the sun would come up, but that didn’t actually happen until a week later. At first the sun only came up around noon for a short time, but by the time Kate left on April 23, Alert was enjoying 24-hour daylight.

It didn’t snow while Kate was in Alert, which she describes as an “Arctic desert”. The coldest temperature she experienced there was -40. “They have warning signs at all the exits,” she said, “Telling you the wind chill factors etc., and there are life lines. No one just wanders around out there.”

Kate is sad that she didn’t get to stay for the summer term, but she still would have needed a break. “I needed to come home, to eat some fast food - and to see cars,” she said.

What really drew her to Alert was the opportunity to experience life in the arctic and to see another ecosystem. "Travelling so far north is something few people get to experience. My favourite part of the term was knowing that my work is going toward studies to understand how the climate and atmosphere is changing."

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