Ten Below


Cold weather and canceled airplane flights grounded me in sunny California a few days longer than expected, but I made it back to Montreal, Quebec for my second graduate semester at McGill University a week after the New Year.  And baby, is it cold outside!

Daily air temperatures have hovered around 0 degrees Farenheit the last few weeks, with daily lows dropping past -20.  Once you factor in the wind-chill, it is numbingly cold here for a girl who grew up in Southern California.  Walking outside is generally unpleasant, and my face is pink and chapped.  That being said, I still have all of my fingers and toes for the time being. Melissa 1: Winter 0.

Standing before the iconic 1967 sculpture L’Homme by Alexander Calder in Jean Drapeau Park

A layer of ice formed on the inside of my bathroom window (yes, you read that right: inside!) several days ago.  The delicate ice crystals melt from shower steam, but generally reform new patterns within a few hours.  Store front windows are spider-webbed with frost and people walking outside are unrecognizable apart from the occasional uncovered nose and chin. 

Freezing air temperatures have also iced over local Lake Saint Louis, which became the first frozen lake I have ever set foot on last weekend.  I was understandingly apprehensive about my first jaunt walking on frozen water suspended over an icy, unforgiving river, but my boyfriend Tory mitigated my fears by pointing out that a dozen large trucks had already driven onto the lake for ice fishing.  It was just as you would imagine it: slightly exhilarating, and very, very cold.  We did not stay out long.

Walking on frozen Lake Saint Louis near Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue

In the winter spirit, I recently purchased a pair of cross country skis.  I tried them out for the first time this past Wednesday morning in McGill's Morgan Arboretum by the MacDonald Campus.  I fell four times in a 3.8 km loop, and days later my body still aches from otherwise unused muscles.  Did I mention that it was -10 degrees that morning?  And I dressed too warm.  Hard to believe, eh? 

In addition to cross country skiing, I recently attended a McGill vs. Dalhousie woodsmen competition (aka, competitive lumberjacking).  Woodsmen competitions are a varsity sport here and include climbing trees, throwing axes, racing in snowshoes, balancing on logs, and chopping wood in every way possible!  And these competitions are not just confined to Canada (although they feel downright Canadian to me); woodsmen teams are apparently quite popular in universities throughout the Northeastern United States.

Woodsmen (lumberjacking) is a competitive varsity sport at McGill and other Northeastern universities

Other than short jaunts into the ice covered terrain and the occasional Thursday night bar trivia, I have been continuing my graduate studies.  This semester I am taking the statistics course Quantitative Methods: Ecology to fulfill a graduation requirement and continue learning how to model ecological systems in R.  R is a programming system and language which feels just about as difficult to master as French.

This semester I am also building the initial population model for Follensby Pond's lake trout population.  A population model is a virtual tool that allows scientists to understand the parameters that drive population changes such as shifts in abundance, age structure, fecundity, and other variables.  Parameters can either be estimated from scientific literature or estimated directly from your data.  More often than not, scientists must use a combination of both to adequately portray the population in question.  Once the population model is up and running, we can test different fishery management scenarios' effect on population dynamics.

Creating population models and testing the effect of management scenarios can help avoid fishery collapse in both recreational and commercial systems.  In her latest blog post, Sarah describes studying the collapse of Newfoundland’s cod fishery and the sustainability of Arctic communities.  I agree with Sarah that maintaining sustainable fisheries are of the utmost importance to maintaining ocean health and providing food for earth’s growing population.  Awareness of fishery over-exploitation is rising from non-profits such as Seafood Watch, but everyone can help by purchasing sustainably harvested fish, and avoiding over-fished stocks such as orange roughy.

Sitting in a giant Adirondack chair at Montreal’s annual snow festival Fete des Neiges

Next month I will attend my first academic conference for the Group for Interuniversity Research in Limnology and Aquatic Environments (GRIL) to present a poster on my thesis research, travel to Rutgers University in New Jersey to build and fine-tune the Follensby Pond population model, and take a quick trip to Boston to visit my boyfriend.

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