Casper Tai Christiansen
Ph.D candidate, Biology
Researching climate change with the help of an Ontario Trillium Scholarship
by Meredith Dault
November 22, 2011
When Casper Tai Christiansen first arrived in Kingston from Denmark to pursue a PhD in biology, he didn’t linger in the city. Within a day, he was on a plane bound for the Northwest Territories with his supervisor, Dr. Paul Grogan, to begin his research. “We went straight to the arctic,” Christiansen laughs. Though the two week trip didn’t give him much time to get oriented in his new hometown, it was still a fitting introduction.
That’s because Christiansen works with arctic terrestrial ecology -- essentially the science of vegetation and soil ecology. His work looks at how vegetation changes and organic matter decomposes in polar climates. “I’m looking at how tundra ecosystems function, in terms of photosynthesis, respiration and soil nutrient cycling,” he explains. “Climate change is most pronounced at the poles, and there is a lot of organic matter stored there. In tundra and boreal soils there are roughly about twice the amount of carbon as is in the atmosphere. So there is a possibility that with global warming, decomposition will increase and release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The warmer it gets, the more soil decomposition we’ll see...it’s a feedback loop.”
But he says researchers are also interested in finding out whether warmer temperatures in the boreal and tundra regions could cause an increase in the growth and productivity of arctic vegetation. “The tundra could potentially absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases, and that would be a positive thing,” he explains, holding up his hands to create a symbolic scale. “We don’t really know how this is going to tip. But that’s what I’m interested in... How this works.”
Christiansen, 30, who grew up hearing about climate change, first journeyed to the arctic as an undergraduate student in 2007 when he travelled to Greenland. “When I was up there, it was just an eye opener,” he recalls. He met researchers studying everything from muskox populations to the deteriorating ice sheets and knew he’d found his area of study. “It all came together for me,” he explains. “I could see that a lot was changing (in the arctic), and that it would have an impact on the rest of the world.”
Animals up in the Arctic
1. Most Oxen endure the hostile weather conditions year round in Greenland. This fellow didn't make it.
2. NE Greenland is polar bear country. WE crossed these tracks in the afternoon. The next day the bear had turned around and was following us!
3. Study site invaded by musk oxen. Two bulls are fighting over three females and you do not want to get involved.
That experience lead to a Master’s degree in arctic ecology and another opportunity to work in Greenland for a month and a half. “It’s amazing there,” he says. It’s a beautiful landscape...harsh, but so vast and so quiet. When I go up there, mentally I completely relax even though we often work hard for more than 12 hours per day. The last time we were there, there were five of us in the middle of nowhere. The nearest settlement was four hours away by plane. We were completely isolated.”
So when it came to pursuing his PhD, Christiansen knew he wanted to continue doing the same kind of work. Open to studying abroad, Christiansen started looking for opportunities around the world. When he found out that Queen’s professor Dr. Paul Grogan was accepting students, he jumped at the chance. “He’s been doing lots of the same kind of research that I am into in the Arctic. He also worked with my old supervisor...and his studies have been some of the ones I have used most in my own work.”
In the Field -
1. Cross country skiing is the only way of getting around NE Greenland during autumn
2. Measuring CO2 emissions in freezing artic soils. The electronics don't tolerate the extreme cold, so they are tucked away in the thermal insulated box.
3. Trying to finish up the CO2 measurements before a blizzard hits the area making it too dangeous to stay outside.
4. Afternoon tea on top of Aucella mountain.
Winning an Ontario Trillium Scholarship for international students, merely sealed the deal. Nominated by the Department of Biology, Christiansen says the scholarship, which will provide four years of substantial funding, will mean he can focus on his research. “From my point of view, that’s pretty amazing. It really means a lot of freedom to do my own work and be able to conduct field work during all seasons. I am very fortunate.”
The Tundra -
1. Fertilizing the tundra as part of a on-going long-term climate change study at Daring Lake
2. Evening entertaiment at Daring Lake: Sorting roots!
3.Proudly presenting a bag of leaf litter harvested after being buried 5 years in the tundra soil. Lab analyses should enhance our knowledge of decomposition in changing arctic vegetation.
4. Beautful autumn colours in the Arctic: The tundra is on fire.