Arctic adventure: experiencing climate change through geography field course

student sitting on a boat in the arctic

It’s not every day that you come face to face with polar bears. Or hike untouched moraines. Or stand among glaciers — witnessing first-hand the devastating effects of climate change, as Cassandra experienced while travelling across Nunavut and Greenland. A trip of a lifetime; you just had to be there.

“The sheer beauty of the north, its size, and significance — I find it almost overwhelming, indescribable,” says Cassandra, who, along with 14 other students and University of Waterloo professors Drs. Christine Dow and Natalie Carter, embarked through the icy landscapes and northern communities of Nunavut and Greenland.

The 13-day cruise formed the basis for the Geography and Environmental Management program's 430B Arctic Field Course, a comprehensive study of the north where students examined the interconnections between the human and physical environment, while exploring the impacts of climate change.

Cassandra, her classmates, and waving from a boat on the open ocean, during an excursion

Between lectures, assignments and data collection, Cassandra and her classmates had opportunities to explore their surroundings, through excursions and other activities on and off the ship. 

“We looked at everything from glacial retreat and rock formations, to food insecurity and how climate change is directly impacting cultural traditions and how people live,” says Cassandra. “If you want to study climate change and the environment, you need to examine the world through both the physical and human experience.

“People assume a geography degree is just about looking at maps. However, it’s more about the forces that shapes the physical landscape and how that directly impacts people.”

Cassandra recalls watching as glacier chunks floated by their boat. “It was like watching climate change in action,” she says. “It seems like everything is changing so quickly up here.” The rapid melting of sea ice has had a profound effect on the communities, disrupting traditional cultural practices, travel, and hunting while spiking the cost of food and supplies. And while she was aware of the scope of such problems before the trip, it took this first-hand experience to fully appreciate what’s at stake, and understand how her geography degree can help her make a difference.

Cassandra taking field notes in front of Arctic glaciers and sea ice

Indeed, it’s the combination of co-op and classwork that led Cassandra to Waterloo’s Geography and Environmental Management program. “Nowhere else compared to what I could do at Waterloo,” says Cassandra. The only problem? “I’m a big city girl, from Toronto, and I didn’t think I would enjoy living here. I was so wrong.”

“There’s more to school than what you study. Getting involved makes you feel part of something, expands your horizons. That’s what university is all about.”

So, what else is on her horizon? “I’m considering doing my master's degree, or working with an environmental agency,” says Cassandra. “There’s so much you can do with geography.” She’s also considering a return to the north. “When we were in Nunavut, we visited the Canadian High Arctic Research Station. They’re doing ground-breaking work and they’re hiring.”

Photography courtesy of Jeff Topham, One Ocean Expeditions