A Taste of the Tundra: Master's Student Joins Arctic Expedition

November 16, 2017

Experience of a lifetime provides Cassie Defrancesco with opportunity to study effects of climate change

Trent master student at arctic standing in front of the Canadian ship on the ice with couple of other researcher

First time on a plane, check. First time on a helicopter, check. First time on a ship – and not just any ship, the largest icebreaker in Canada – first polar bear sighting, check and check!

It was a lot of amazing firsts for Environmental and Life Sciences Master’s student, Cassie Defrancesco, and all the result of one vast, cold and expansive first – a first, which she hopes will not be her last.

“This was my first time in the Arctic,” says Ms. Defrancesco, recalling her recent research field trip to the Arctic Ocean to gather water samples.

When the opportunity came up to go to the Arctic, the 23-year-old didn’t hesitate to accept her mission. The mission? To gather water samples, and examine the changes in organic material in that water all with an eye towards mitigating climate change.

“I am very worried about climate change. Undeniably, the earth is warming up and influencing every environmental system. For example, as the global average temperature increases, ice sheets on land masses will melt, which will raise ocean levels,” she says, noting that since 2010 there have been clear decreases in sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. “The fact the sea ice cover in the Arctic has decreased in both its winter maximum extent and minimum summer extent show that the Earth is warming up. This is mostly due to increased burning of fossil fuels.”

Ms. Defrancesco took part in the research with Chemistry professor Dr. Celine Gueguen, Canada research chair in aquatic sciences and biogeochemistry at Trent. Professor Gueguen runs the Laboratory of Aquatic Sciences and Biogeochemistry at Trent, which specializes in the determination of interactions between metals and organic compounds isolated in Arctic fresh and marine waters and is one of the best-equipped Canadian laboratories for this type of work.

During the month-long expedition, Ms. Defrancesco was responsible for helping collect the water samples, providing insight into the amount of freshwater that is reaching the ocean by processes such as river runoff. As the composition of Arctic waters are changing due to lack of sea ice, the amount of freshwater in the Arctic region is changing, and this has various repercussions, like the relocation of wildlife.

“I learned how to operate the CTD/Rosette that goes to the bottom of the ocean and collects water at certain depths on its way up. This involved a huge amount of teamwork,” she says. “I came out of this knowing how to communicate properly with a team. I was surrounded by knowledgeable scientists 24/7. Scientists from the Institute of Ocean Sciences, Wood Hole Oceanographic Institute, and various primary investigators from universities around the world, many of whom have been researching the Arctic ocean for many years.”

What’s her plan post-graduation? “I would like to find a job where I can apply my chemistry background to further helping the environment,” she says. “Now that I’ve been immersed in climate change research, I would like to find more ways to understand the impact and then help reduce the rate at which climate change is occurring.”

And, yes, she’d like to go back to the Arctic to continue her research one day