Arctic science: hard work and a lot of money

Tiny sea critters can reveal extent of climate change

By JANE GEORGE

This sea anemone makes its home 600 metres below the surface of Lancaster Sound. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)


This sea anemone makes its home 600 metres below the surface of Lancaster Sound. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

This “feather starfish” and sea urchin were pulled up from the sea floor Aug. 8. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)


This “feather starfish” and sea urchin were pulled up from the sea floor Aug. 8. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

A metal rosette is lowered down from the Amundsen into the sea where its canisters will fill up with sea water at different levels. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)


A metal rosette is lowered down from the Amundsen into the sea where its canisters will fill up with sea water at different levels. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

These starfish, called “brittle starfish,” live on the sea floor where equipment launched off the Amundsen scooped them up. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)


These starfish, called “brittle starfish,” live on the sea floor where equipment launched off the Amundsen scooped them up. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Pouring out samples collected off the sea floor can be a muddy job, as shown by this operation to empty a net on board the Amundsen.(PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)


Pouring out samples collected off the sea floor can be a muddy job, as shown by this operation to empty a net on board the Amundsen.(PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

ON BOARD THE AMUNDSEN — Gathering the information scientists need to understand climate change in the Arctic takes hard work and lots of money.

Standing in cold rain on the slippery deck of the Amundsen icebreaker, a group of researchers and crew get ready to sink a 216 metre-long chain of equipment into the water at 11:00 pm on Aug. 7.

This chain, called a mooring, looks a bit like a Christmas garland with its giant-sized orange and yellow buoys. It’s designed to bob 55 metres under the surface of the water and below the sea ice.

Once in place, the equipment on the $250,000 mooring starts to register information about ice thickness, current, salinity, currents and even whale calls.

This mooring, gathering data for the Nova Scotia’s Bedford Oceangraphic Institute, will remain under the water between Baffin Island and Devon Island until 2011.

It’s the first mooring left at the western end of Lancaster Sound although there are several others that are collecting similar data in other locations.

Over the short-term, information from this mooring will show changes, “which could or could not be linked to climate change,” says André Rochon, the senior scientists on this portion of the Amundsen’s research voyage.

Analysis of undersea critters, collected by researchers travelling on the Amundsen, can also point to changes in the marine environment.

In other Arctic waters, undersea life has already changed, says Anne Fontaine, a researcher from the University of Quebec in Rimouski.

Some species have moved further north as temperatures rise and other species from southern waters have expanded their range into the Arctic.

But so far, there’s little information about what deep-sea life in this region, Fontaine says, which makes it even more urgent to collect specimens now.

When a net is pulled up out of the water early on Aug. 7, spurting out a flood of mud over the deck, Fontaine gathers up buckets of the muddy sediments.

She’ll spend the rest of the day in an on-board laboratory looking at what this muck hides.

When it’s washed away, spindly brittle stars, sea stars, mushroom-shaped anemones, tiny transparent shrimp, little clamshells and a banana-like sea cucumber emerge.

“Amazing,” she says about the huge variety of life found 300 metres under the surface of the water.

After the specimens are cleaned, she’ll dry or freeze them for further study — to see how many of each species there are and what they reveal about current marine conditions.

When researchers like Fontaine, who are travelling on the Amundsen, start to take samples, they’re already six days into a 10-day voyage from Iqaluit through the Northwest Passage to Kugluktuk.

So while the Amundsen is still in the ice-free waters of Lancaster Sound, they work around-the-clock, scrambling to gather and process samples of water and air.

The Amundsen’s decks are cluttered with specialized equipment, including:

• A contraption called a box core, which looks like a giant steel breadbox. Once in the water, the box core scoops up sediments on the sea floor, 600 m down, and brings them back up, where they’re stuffed into plastic tubes for further study;

• A long metal tube, which is weighted down and launched into the water. When the tube hits bottom, it sinks and pick up sediments from beneath the sea floor; and,

• A rosette, which is thrown over the edge of the boat. Its round steel frame is loaded with empty canisters that take water samples at different levels.

Such equipment takes a lot of money to buy and to use.

In all, on board the Amundsen, there is $20 million worth of equipment, which belongs to ArcticNet, a group of academic institutions led by Laval university.

And that doesn’t include the $30 million spent in seven years ago to transform the Amundsen, formerly called the Sir John Franklin, into a research icebreaker.

The icebreaker costs about $80,000 a day to operate.

ArcticNet, which pays the Coast Guard to use the Amundsen, gets its money from numerous government agencies, such as Manitoba Hydro, which helped pay for research last month in Hudson Bay.

And ArcticNet also has partners, such as the oil company BP, which will support the ship’s activities in the Beaufort Sea, the Amundsen’s destination when it sails out of Kugluktuk Aug. 12.

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