Lab technician Marcus Sheppard reports on joining the small, seasonal population of Alert, Nunavut to do some exciting wetland work for the Centre for Alternative Wastewater Treatment.
“Are you willing to travel for work?”
At the time, it seemed like a standard interview question. Little did I know, however, that just six months later I’d be climbing up the metal steps of a military grade C-17 jet en route to the most northern inhabited place in the world.
After a seven-hour flight in a cabin packed mostly with heavy shipping crates, a handful of formally dressed military personnel and a few other wide-eyed civilians, we touched down on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island. The balmy mid-May temperatures of Trenton, Ontario quickly faded from memory as we stepped off the plane into a blast of -20°C Arctic air.
A winterized school bus whisked us from the runway to the place that I would call both work and home for the next four months: Alert, Nunavut—a military base located as far north in Canada as you can possibly reach on land.
As we walked through the massive doors of the main entrance, we were greeted with a raucous applause, smiling faces, and cheering. As I peeled off my parka, it seemed an odd, but warm, welcome from people who were strangers to us.
CFS Alert and the CAWT
Established in the 1950s, first as a weather station, then a military monitoring station (due to its proximity to Russia during the Cold War), CFS Alert still functions as a military monitoring site, as well as an Environment Canada weather station, a global atmospheric warming laboratory, and a symbol of Canada’s sovereignty in the modern day Arctic.
In 2010, the Department of National Defense hired the Centre for Alternative Wastewater Treatment (CAWT) to study water and wastewater treatment in the Arctic. As a lab technician for the Centre for Alternative Wastewater Treatment (CAWT), I helped continue this work by carrying out a comprehensive study of a constructed wetland in extreme Arctic conditions.
Due to extreme conditions—including snow cover for nine to ten months of the year, 24 hours of darkness for half of the year, and temperatures that drop as low as -50°C—Alert can support only a small working population of between 60-120 people, which is highest during the summer months.
Luckily for me, this type of field work could only be carried out during the summer when the wetland is not completely frozen. The summer in Alert is like everything else in Alert—very unique. It is made up of close to four months where the sun does not set (complete daylight) with temperatures ranging from -5°C to +15°C and, due to the very low amount of precipitation, it could be described as a desert environment.
The wetland in Alert is an engineered terraced system used to treat all of the wastewater produced on base. It handles approx 100m3 of effluent every day, the treatment methods function by maximizing the potential for a number of naturally occurring processes. These include, but are not limited to, ultraviolet radiation, physical filtration, and nutrient root uptake. Due to a lack of funds and infrastructure this natural technology is used as the main source of wastewater treatment in many Arctic communities. It has proven to be a low maintenance, low cost, and low impact system that provides the north with adequate wastewater treatment. Ensuring wastewater quality helps to preserve the health of surrounding ecosystems and the communities that interact within them.
Over the summer, I split my time between field work and running a laboratory to complete water quality analysis on samples taken from the wetland.
The field work consisted of weekly sampling at multiple locations (samples sent to Ontario for analyses), GPS data collection, soil sampling, and surveying work for the creation of a digital map.
The second half of my work consisted of setting up and running a small laboratory to analyze water quality. In my lab I was able to test for a number of parameters that were time sensitive and needed to be analysed shortly after sampling. These tests included pH, Dissolved Oxygen, Conductivity, Total Coliforms, E.coli, Biochemical Oxygen Demand, and Carbonaceous Biochemical Oxygen Demand.
As a graduate of the Environmental Technology program at Fleming College, I can say that this program made me well prepared for this unique experience, both in the field and in the lab. It was crucial to know the theory and have practice with field work most notably with sampling protocols.
Culture and surroundings
On days off in the north, there was no shortage of social events, competitions, and pickup sports—there were even two taverns on the base for after-hours refreshments. Some highlights include a polar dip (swimming in the Arctic Ocean which was a frigid 2°C), ball hockey tournaments (which the Canadian military takes very, very seriously), Canada Day celebrations, and poker nights.
The authentic northern experiences, however, came from enjoying the true Arctic environment for its extreme isolation and ruggedness.
In the field, the wetland was the ideal location to see and sometimes interact with the native wildlife. On more than one occasion, I was greeted on the wetland by the local pack of Arctic wolves. This could be a downright scary experience, but sometimes they allowed me the opportunity to witness and photograph the most amazing scenes. During the many hours I spent outside, I spotted more Arctic wolves, plus lemmings, seals, Arctic hare, Arctic fox, long-tailed jagers, and, from a distance, polar bears.
During hikes off the base, I saw some unbelievable sights: ice caves hundreds of years old, the site of a 1992 plane crash, a herd of muskox, and Peary caribou grazing on vegetation.
Why work in the Arctic?
After four months of getting to know the fascinating people who call this place home and taking in the amazing wildlife and landscape, I finally understood why we were greeted with cheers and clapping on the day I arrived. Not only were they cheering for the arrival of new blood at the taverns, they were cheering to let us know that we had made it to a beautiful, isolated place that so few of us are lucky to explore.
Marcus Sheppard has a B.A. in Environmental Studies from Sir Wilfrid Laurier University and a diploma in the Environmental Technician program at Fleming College. Marcus first worked as a summer student in the CAWT in 2011 and now works with the CAWT as a lab technician. Marcus performs laboratory testing and assists with the set up and implementation of experiments.