Oceanographer Philippe Tortell had been planning a research mission to the Arctic for two years, and now the vessel which was taking him there was turning around, just as his team was about to reach the Arctic circle.
Forty scientists from institutions across Canada had boarded the CCGS Amundsen — one of the few Canadian Coast Guard ships equipped to perform scientific research — in Québec City on July 10, 2015. A week into its mission the ship was being rerouted. The Amundsen is also used by the Coast Guard for icebreaking, generally from December to April. Canada only has two heavy and four medium icebreakers, all part of the Coast Guard fleet, and no dedicated Arctic research vessels.
This year, unusual conditions meant the Amundsen was needed to assist vessels in the summer. It also meant Tortell and his UBC colleagues might not be able to collect the samples they needed.
It was Tortell’s first expedition to the Arctic and it might be a wash. He did not know how many days they would spend escorting vessels through the ice. One day turned into two, two into three. After two weeks, the vessel finally headed back towards the Arctic Circle.
“It wasn’t all bad,” says Tortell. “The detour took us through the Hudson Straight so we were able to get some high-quality data on an area we hadn’t planned to look at.”
Nevertheless, it was a stressful time for everyone.The scientists managed to make up for the lost time when they did reach the North, but Tortell says his experience highlights the need for better investments in Arctic research infrastructure.
“There’s been a lot of talk of Canada’s capabilities in the North, but our resources remain very limited. The Arctic is changing very rapidly and we need baseline information on its chemistry, biology and physics. We need a snapshot of it so we can measure future changes.”
Capturing the chemical fingerprints
Our oceans are filled with trace elements, such as iron, zinc and cadmium, which are important to marine life cycles, and which can also be used as tracers of water masses. A few years ago Tortell and UBC marine geochemist Roger Francois designed their expedition to the Arctic as part of the GEOTRACES worldwide project.
If the mission got on track Roger Francois and Tortell would serve as chief scientists and recruit other researchers to join them. The group aboard the Amundsen would gather world-class information on trace elements, as well as study phytoplankton, marine gas balances, and ocean acidification.
One of the marine gasses of key interest to Tortell is dimethyl sulfide (DMS). DMS is Earth's largest natural source of sulfur gas, and much of the planet’s DMS originates in the ocean, where it’s produced by phytoplankton. DMS gives the ocean its distinctive smell. DMS also helps generate sulphate aerosols—minute particles suspended in the atmosphere. These sulphate aerosols reflect sunlight, which might have a cooling effect on the planet.
Understanding the production of Arctic DMS, and the role that DMS-based aerosols play in climate effects, is key to setting baselines in the region. It also takes special expertise and equipment.
Tereza Jarníková, a graduate student in Tortell’s research group, travelled aboard the Amundsen studying DMS in Arctic waters. She was aided by OSSCAR, a robot assembled at UBC. Unlike the robots of Star Wars, OSSCAR has no legs or arms: it is a set of steel and plastic boxes connected by tubes.
The genius of OSSCAR (the Organic Sulphur Sequential Chemical Analysis Robot) is that it is an automated machine connected to a sea water supply. Water continuously flows in, OSSCAR measures the concentration of elements, and sends the data to a computer.
“You don’t need to stop the ship, get water from a bottle, and then analyse it,” Jarníková said. “It saves a lot of time, which means we get much higher resolution measurements than are available through other methods.”
But OSSCAR isn’t without issues. Like any other type of equipment it can break down or stop functioning correctly, and then it is up to scientists like Jarníková to troubleshoot the problem. And when you're on a ship in the middle of the Arctic you can’t run to Canadian Tire for a new part.
That is the reality aboard a research vessel: The constant need to adapt and tackle problems with limited resources and multiple constraints.
Life on the ship is busy. While some instruments are automated like OSSCAR, researchers also manually launch bottles into the ocean to collect samples and analyze the data coming in.
Then there’s the strange time fluctuation in the Arctic.
“The concept of daylight goes out the window, the sun never goes down,” Jarníková said. “Inside the ship, it’s an intense environment, you are always with the same people. Outside it is very remote and there is a sense of isolated vastness.”
Tortell had a similar reaction. The Amundsen was noisy. The sound of ice breaking was a continual sharp grinding. But when he stood on deck, the terrain that surrounded Tortell looked like a moon-scape—a stark land of glaciers and ice fields.
“When we were sailing into the Labrador Sea for a lot of the time, it was very foggy. The ocean and the sea seemed to meld together. Then we passed next through Lancaster Sound and it’s a biological hotspot, with lots of fish and seabirds and marine mammals,” recalls Tortell.
It’s a beautiful place which is quickly changing.
A race to map a changing world
While Earth has warmed over the last few decades, the Arctic is heating up twice as fast as lower latitudes. As temperatures rise sea ice might thin out by as much as 45 centimetres. Changes in the water will have an impact on every level of the marine ecosystem, from tiny plankton to sea mammals. Recent sea ice retreat seems to already be altering the timing of phytoplankton blooms throughout the Arctic Ocean.
DMS and several trace elements tie into primary productivity—the rate at which atmospheric or aqueous carbon dioxide is converted by primary producers, such as algae, to organic material. If Tortell and colleagues can determine how productivity will change in the future, researchers might be able to map out potential changes up the food web.
Moose and snowshoe hares have already extended their habitats farther north in the Arctic. Fish stocks are shifting their ranges. This will affect the communities which live there, many of which are Aboriginal, altering their economy, culture and way of life.
Right now we simply don’t know enough about the Arctic and its waters, though paradoxically, the warming of the North is allowing vessels and scientists to reach areas they might not have been able to study in previous decades. Tortell envisions a future in which Canada can maintain several stations with automated robots similar to OSSCAR providing real-time data to scientists.
And what happens in the Arctic is important not only to Canadians, but to other nations. Which is why Tortell and colleagues are arguing we must make a concerted effort to monitor our northern waters.
“I hope we will come to a better understanding of what it means to live in the north and consider how we can integrate science with traditional knowledge,” Tortell said. “We have to figure out how to create a sustainable future for the north. We have to fulfill our promise to become a true Arctic nation.”
Learn more about the Arctic by visiting the expedition’s blog.