by Natalie Sopinka

This year the Ottawa Regional Science Fair was held April 4-5 at Carleton University. With over 200 students from grades 7-12, the event was filled with young bright minds asking questions about energy, the environment, human health, and natural resources.

Kathleen Conlan and Natalie Sopinka were on hand to judge projects that demonstrated “knowledge of some aspect of natural history, field ecology, or wildlife conservation.” From brachiopods and ducks to mushrooms as oil absorbents and wort plants in motor oil, the breadth of topics was vast and the talent abundant. The Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club presented awards this year to Emma Kirke, Aidan Gurung, and Shamus McCoy.

Natalie Sopinka (left) and Kathy Conlan (right) chose the winners of the OFNC awards at this year's science fair.

Natalie Sopinka (left) and Kathy Conlan (right) chose the winners of the OFNC awards at this year’s science fair. From left to right: Shamus McCoy, Emma Kirke, Aidan Gurung.

Emma Kirke – Survival of the Narrowest

Tree crown shapes. Photo: Google

Tree crown shapes. Photo: Google

A trip to Hawaii and a windstorm in Washington sparked Emma’s interest in trees. She was surprised to hear from a relative that Hurricane Iniki had drastically changed the beautiful landscape she saw during her visit to Kauai, and that her friend’s family had to evacuate their house in D.C. after severe winds felled a tree on it causing a gas leak.

Emma investigated how tree crown shape affects wind resistance. Focusing on tree shapes found in the Ottawa area, Emma made model trees from different materials (e.g., straw, yarn, felt) to mimic how trees bend and move. She then constructed her own wind tunnel and measured how long each model tree took to fall when blasted with different wind speeds. Emma found that trees with oval-shaped crowns, such as the Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum), were the most wind resistant. Knowing Ottawa is no stranger to harsh, icy winters, Emma also mentioned that the conical shape of the Norway Spruce (Picea abies) would be most resistant to collapse under glaze ice.

Emma also received the Ottawa Horticultural Society’s award.

Aidan Gurung – Saving Swainson’s Hawks 

Swainson’s Hawk. Photo: Bryan Osborne

Aidan enjoys birding with her aunt at the family cottage. When she read a study on populations of Swainson’s hawks (Buteo swainsoni) declining in their South American wintering grounds due to pesticide use, she wanted to make sure further declines weren’t going to happen at breeding and stopover sites in North America. Using satellite tags attached to Swainson’s hawks, the U.S. Geological Society has tracked the migration path of over 30 individuals. As the birds move, their geographic location is sent from the tag to satellites that record the coordinates.

Aidan accessed this data (available online) and followed the migration of two hawks. She noted throughout their migration how long each hawk spent in areas with lakes, farms, highways, forests, and houses. Aidan then made recommendations as to which areas should be protected to ensure that habitat used frequently by Swainson’s hawks is not disturbed.

Shamus McCoy – Looking into the Past

Shamus collects fossils in the Ottawa region and knows a thing or two about the Ordovician-Silurian extinction event, when nearly all marine invertebrates disappeared. Shamus studied local fossil records to gather evidence to support the current hypothesized cause of the Ordovician-Silurian extinction, glaciation. He first observed changes in species abundance between fossil layers; for example, filter-feeding brachiopods disappeared in the extinction but detritus-feeding ostracods did not. He also detected iron pyrite in post-extinction strata: this suggests that an earlier environmental event reduced oxygen levels in oceans, as the mineral only forms under conditions of low oxygen.

Shamus hypothesized that mountain formation during the Ordovician-Silurian (known as Taconic orogeny, see below) led to a volcanic event that released aerosols into the atmosphere resulting in acid rain, which altered oxygen levels in the oceans. When the mountain building stopped, Shamus proposed that extensive erosion (not ideal for filter-feeders) could have sequestered carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, lowering temperatures and causing glaciation.

Shamus also received the Natural Resources Canada – Earth Sciences award. Stay tuned for a guest post on the blog by Shamus!

Taconic Orogeny. Photo: Google

Taconic Orogeny. Photo: Google