That “breakthrough” is an affirmation that the Northwest Passage will become an international shipping route. It’s expected to experience several months of ice-free passage occurring within the next 15 years—about 35 years earlier than most scientists predicted.
“Everything seems to be melting a little faster than the middle-of-the-track models predicted,” says Université Laval Professor Louis Fortier, one of Canada’s pre-eminent Arctic oceanographers. “It’s more likely that the more alarmist models will be proven right this time.”
Fortier says that is a wake-up call for the Canadian government which must immediately begin wrestling with Arctic sovereignty and geopolitical issues. Canada’s traditional position is that the Northwest Passage is Canadian territory because they are “internal” waters covered year-round with ice. However, the United States and many European countries have already staked out a position that once the passage is open to connect two international bodies of water, it will become an international route. The crossing has always been considered an appealing commercial shipping route, so Canada must solidify its position surrounding the passage before other countries try to lay claim to it.
“The idea is to do what Panama did with the canal,” says Fortier. “We must be in a position to say, ‘You can go through there—but you are going to cross under Canadian responsibility and stewardship.’ That means crossings must be carried out in a way that is both physically and environmentally safe.
On its current mission, the Amundsen’s researchers will again use an EM-300 multi-beam sonar, eventually giving Canada the first complete picture of the bottom of the Northwest Passage and the most accurate data for mapping future shipping lanes.
The icebreaker, originally known as the CCGS Sir John Franklin, underwent a huge overhaul with 50 changes to systems and infrastructure in 2003. She was rechristened the CCGS Amundsen, honouring the legendary Arctic explorer, befitting of her new role as a research icebreaker. And did she ever break the ice within the Arctic science community.
Her maiden voyage was as the centrepiece of the Canadian Arctic Shelf Exchange Study (CASES), which travelled to the Beaufort Sea with researchers from nine different countries to study the Mackenzie Shelf ecosystem. “We had planned for 340 days at sea in the Arctic and actually kept the ship at sea for 390 days,” says Fortier. “It is probably the largest, most complete, multidisciplinary expedition in modern times to understand what is going on in the Arctic Ocean. This has been a big national and international success... which was the catalyst to bring the Canadian Arctic scientific community back together.”
The one-year mission saw nine, six-week rotations of 42 researchers “measuring [everything] from the stratosphere to the sediment” and examining the full range of Arctic biology from viruses to mammals, says Fortier. A critical aspect of the mission was to establish the criteria for which data and measurements are tracked during shorter annual return visits by the Amundsen.
This year’s return trip is under the auspices of ArcticNet—a Canadian Network of Centres of Excellence—which connects 140 principal investigators from 23 Canadian universities, five government departments, and researchers from 11 other countries. The Amundsen will spend 150 days in the Arctic going through the Beaufort Sea and breaking a path through the Northwest Passage to continue mapping and photographing the seabed. Scientists will also recover a series of underwater monitoring stations or “moorings” which continuously record vast quantities of data, such as temperature and pollutants. This data helps scientists understand the changes in the Arctic Ocean. The data will be downloaded and the moorings reset for another year. ArcticNet is a long-term research project which could be extended for up to 18 years with anticipated funding renewals.
The research conducted on the Amundsen aims to contribute to the base of knowledge to help Canadians understand the impact of issues such as climate change and Arctic globalization. Armed with this knowledge, Canada will be in a better position to develop effective strategies and national policies surrounding such issues.
From the depths of the icy Arctic Ocean to the atmosphere above, the ability to have researchers in place for a year has not only revealed the faster-than-anticipated melting of the Northwest Passage, but it has also solved some mysteries and uncovered others. The one-year inaugural mission of the CCGS Amundsen left laboratories “overwhelmed with all the data” from the dozens of research projects which took place.
Researchers discovered that the Arctic marine ecosystem is much more active than previously thought in the dark winter ocean depths. They also discovered the location of massive quantities of Arctic cod that scientists believed existed from evidence in the stomachs of seabirds, seals, and whales, but had never actually been found. Thanks to the state-of-the-art sonars aboard the Amundsen, they were finally able to find and verify the existence of these cod, discovering massive schools of fish 30 times the size of what had previously been spotted. Such a finding is vital to the recovery of Canada’s fishing industry.
“This time we found them,” says Fortier. “The [cod] are all over the place from the sea floor to the first 100 metres above it—they reproduce, they eat zooplankton and congregate together. They are very active [in the Arctic winter]—that was a surprise.”
A second major surprise was that the Arctic Ocean’s ice cap acts like a giant sink to absorb massive quantities of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas linked to global warming.
“We thought the ice cover in the winter months was a tight lid over the Arctic Ocean, and there was no gas exchange through the ice over the winter months,” says Fortier. Instead, what they learned is that the ice absorbs CO2 at the rate of 20 grams per square metre.
“If you look at the 12 to 13 million square kilometres of ice covering the Arctic in the winter, that comes out to about 360 million tonnes of CO2,” says Fortier. That’s equivalent to 1.5 times Canada’s entire commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol.
However, Fortier says researchers have not yet been able to determine where that CO2 is going, so it can’t be counted yet as a reduction in greenhouse gases. So far, they can’t find any conversion process or transfer into the water below. Further research will be conducted to determine if the CO2 is released back into the atmosphere as the ice thaws, or if there is a permanent process of absorption or conversion which eliminates the gas altogether.
It’s clear that the Arctic still holds many icy secrets for researchers to solve, but with these latest discoveries, Canada will be able to further understand its Arctic territory and make some important decisions about its borders.
The transformation of the Sir John Franklin to the Amundsen was initiated by a joint proposal in 2002 from a consortium of universities led by the Université Laval and four federal government departments (Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Environment Canada, Natural Resources Canada, Department of National Defence) to turn the icebreaker into a state-of-the-art Arctic Research platform.
The Canadian Arctic Shelf Exchange Study (CASES), a five-years Research Network funded by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), represented the first scientific mission of the Amundsen.
Other partners include the Canadian Coast Guard which recently absorbed the cost of the installation of the Dynamic Positioning System, a highly accurate steering and positioning equipment, the Canadian Network of Centres of Excellence, ArcticNet and several Federal departments and agencies including Fisheries and Oceans, Natural Resources, Environment and the Canadian Museum of Nature.
ArcticNet involves more than 90 researchers from 23 Canadian universities, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and the four government departments mentioned above. It collaborates with research teams in the USA, Japan, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Poland, the United Kingdom, Spain, Russia, Greenland and France.