Page last updated at 16:48 GMT, Friday, 27 June 2008 17:48 UK

Ice diary: Science in the fast-changing Arctic

Liz Kalaugher reports from the High Arctic as she travels aboard the Amundsen, a Canadian Coast Guard vessel. She has joined an expedition investigating the effects of climate change off Banks Island.

THURSDAY 26 JUNE: SHIPPING OUT

I depart from the Amundsen with mixed feelings; I'm sad to be leaving the scientists and crew, who have been incredibly welcoming over the past week, but I'm looking forward to being able to walk around on dry land.

Helicopter  (Liz Kalaugher/IOP)
Crew changeovers are a busy time for the helicopter pilots

Fifteen people are leaving the icebreaker today and 13 are joining.

It's an impressive feat co-ordinating helicopter transfers via the bleak airstrip at Cape Parry.

Although it's not as bleak as it first appears - further investigation whilst we wait for the aeroplane reveals an ungainly Arctic hare lolloping away from us and some low-lying clumps of flowers.

Before I head back to Inuvik, I join Natalie Asselin of the University of Manitoba on an aerial survey for whales.

At first, the whales I spot turn out to be whale-shaped pieces of ice - Natalie is studying the beluga whale, which is white.

But then I realise that the black rock I have been staring at absent-mindedly has a tail. It turns out to be a bowhead, a different species.

Beluga whales (Klaus Hochheim)
The aerial survey spots beluga whales near the sea ice

Once I've got my eye in, I see another bowhead and around eight belugas, predominately in groups of two or three.

Belugas tend to hang around near sea ice, Natalie tells me, probably to feed on Arctic cod and for protection from killer whales.

Belugas don't have a fin on their backs so, unlike killer whales, they can swim underneath the ice. The reduction in ice cover as climate change progresses could be a problem for belugas, so it's useful to know more about how they interact with the ice.

Scientists also don't have much data on the whales' behaviour at this time of year - it's hard to get here in spring unless you spend the winter in the area, as the Amundsen has.

This year, the researchers saw their first beluga arrive on its migration from the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska on 9 May, around three weeks earlier than expected.

That could be a result of the low ice conditions this year, or simply because no-one has looked before.

Cape Parry airstrip (Liz Kalaugher/IOP)
There is no chance of stocking up with duty-free at Cape Parry

They plan to check with members of the Inuit community, who hunt belugas as a traditional food source when the whales usually arrive in the area.

As we fly above the waves, Natalie uses an instrument called a hyperspectral sensor to measure the characteristics of the ice and water, as well as taking photographs through a glass window in the floor of the plane.

Towards the end of the flight, the cloud comes down and we duck underneath it until it feels like we are almost touching the sea. Apart from this cloud and the fog that delayed my arrival, I've seen clear blue skies all week.

It's hard to believe that's not normal. During the summer, the Arctic is, on average, covered in cloud 80% of the time because of all the moisture from the ocean and melt ponds.

Although I'm heading home, the Amundsen will move further north to M'Clure Strait off Banks Island, an area that hasn't been studied before.

I hope the researchers have a great trip and get the data they need to tell us more about this vast wilderness - an early sufferer of the effects of climate change.

WEDNESDAY 25 JUNE: TAKING THE WATERS

So far it looks like the acupressure wrist bands are doing the trick - the wind got up to 25 knots yesterday and I'm feeling OK.

Canadian Coast Guard crew member Marianne tells me that most people who get seasick would have started to feel it by now so I'm optimistic.

Researchers examining fishing nets (liz Kalaugher/IOP)
The researchers managed to net a few Arctic cod larvae

The sea is too rough for researchers to leave the icebreaker on its flat-bottomed barge.

Recently, they've been using the barge to collect samples away from the ship where the surface water hasn't been affected by the Amundsen churning it up or contaminating it. But today they improvise by throwing buckets off the icebreaker.

Once the mid-leg crew change takes place tomorrow, the engineers will have the spare part they need to fix the Zodiac that can leave the ship in all conditions.

Jens Ehn of the University of Manitoba tells me how light reflects from the surface of the ice as it starts to melt.

Both snow and ice reflect a large proportion of the energy from the Sun's rays back into the sky. But once the snow has gone, pools of water known as melt ponds appear on the ice, decreasing its reflectivity.

On this trip, Jens has found that as melting proceeds, the melt ponds drain away and the ice briefly becomes more reflective again.

However, the wind and waves break up the thin and brittle ice and expose the less reflective ocean below.

Surface reflectivity is of great interest to climate scientists because it affects how much heat the Earth absorbs.

Melt ponds (Liz Kalaugher/IOP)
Melt ponds reduce the reflectivity of the ice

One of the problems of climate change in the Arctic is that as air temperatures rise and more ice melts, a greater area of the darker ocean below is exposed.

The ocean then absorbs more heat from the Sun and causes additional warming, which is known as a positive feedback loop.

Today's fishing nets prove more successful than earlier in the week. Stephane Thanassekos and Samuel Lauzon of Laval University catch several Arctic cod larvae.

They're transparent with a faint pink tinge and around 5mm long, making them likely to be about 10 days old.

Arctic cod contain a form of anti-freeze in their bodies that enables them to live under the ice, where they can hide from predators such as seals and seabirds.

Stephane will use his data to create computer models of the growth of the fish, allowing him to predict how climate change will affect them.

As climate change kicks in and the ice disappears they will lose their protective habitat. What's more, fish from warmer waters could move north and compete with the Arctic cod for food.

Yet on the other hand, the warmer temperatures may help them to grow faster - it's not yet clear which of these factors will have the greatest effect.

TUESDAY 24 JUNE: MISSING WILDLIFE

I didn't see it but a whale played chicken with the boat early this morning, moving out of the way only at the last minute. The ship is powering east towards Darnley Bay where'll she stop to take further samples.

Elizabeth Shadwick of Dalhousie University   (Liz Kalaugher/IOP)
Dalhousie's Elizabeth Shadwick stays cheerful in the hectic lab

Whilst we're in transit, many of the 40 scientists on board head for the laboratories. The Amundsen has around a dozen labs, including a clean room where the contaminants team can measure mercury levels in the atmosphere, ice, snow and water; and a cold lab for working on ice cores.

The cold lab is kept at a steady minus 23C so that the structure of the ice doesn't change.

In order to fit as much equipment in as possible, conditions are fairly cramped. There's a "no grumpiness" sign on the door of the labs at the back of the boat.

When several researchers are in there at once and the boat is rolling, it's easy to bump into someone and ruin their sample. Apparently some people react to this better than others.

CJ Mundy, of the University of Rimouski, who's currently chief scientist on board, tells me how this year the ice melt is around four weeks ahead of schedule.

Earlier in the season, the researchers had been planning to set up an ice camp on the fast ice attached to the land but they found the ice was too thin. Last September, ice in the Arctic reached record low levels so there is less multiyear ice around this year than ever before. And first-year ice is more easily broken up by the wind and waves than multiyear ice.

Although the Circumpolar Flaw Lead Project is still in data-collection mode - it will take another couple of years to analyse all the data - CJ was able to give me his initial impressions.

Canadian Arctic (BBC)

He's been surprised how much primary production, from floating small plant cells and ice algae, the team has seen under the ice in shallow bays.

There's been around 10 times more under the ice than in the open water in the middle of the polynya - an ice-free area that appears across this bay during the spring.

The project is unique as it's sampled the polynya over 12 months. To do that, the boat had to overwinter here so that it was ready in position in the spring as the polynya appeared. And the Amundsen's moon pool means that the scientists have been able to take water samples while the ship moves from open water into land fast ice at the edge of the polynya.

"This is probably the only ship that could do it," said Mundy.

While the Circumpolar Flaw Lead Project is going well, I'm not having a good day for wildlife spotting.

Having missed three whales at around 6am, I also don't hear the call on the Amundsen's PA system that there is a polar bear on an ice floe we're passing.

It was quite a way in the distance, I find out later, but was a big one. The bear was wading through melt pools, with one foot breaking right through the ice every now and then.

MONDAY 23 JUNE: OPEN WATER

With the refuelling complete, Cape Bathurst is the location for today's ocean sampling.

Below us the ocean floor forms a cliff, dropping from about 150m (490ft) below the surface to a depth of 250m (820ft).

A brittlestar (Liz Kalaugher/IOP)
Brittlestars were among the organisms examined by the researchers

It's a region of upwelling, where nutrient-rich water from below comes up to the surface, so it's likely to be relatively rich in life.

Heike Link, from the University of Rimouski, checks this out by taking blocks of sediment, known as "box cores", from the ocean floor.

She finds several different species, including brittlestars, a foot-long marine worm from the Sipunculid family, other smaller worms known as polychaetes and a snail. Later tests will reveal the amount of life inside the sediment by checking how much respiration is taking place.

Meanwhile, Stephane Thanassekos of Laval University is searching for Arctic cod larvae by casting nets over the side of the boat, but it proves to be a bad day for fishing.

Heike Link cleans up box core samples (Liz Kalaugher/IOP)
"Box core" samples of sediment reveal the full diversity of Arctic marine life

Mukesh Gupta of the University of Manitoba shows me the laser kit he's using to measure the roughness of the ocean.

Earlier in the season the team used the same equipment, which measures how long it takes four laser beams to travel to the surface and back, to look at the surface of the ice.

Surface roughness affects heat transfer between the atmosphere and the ice or water below, and could be altered by climate change.

It's the first time this prototype equipment, known as LAWAS, has been used to measure ice roughness from a ship.

A tour of the Amundsen's engine rooms reveals the six 3,000 horsepower engines that propel the ship, as well as the evaporators for converting seawater into drinking water; the sewage treatment systems; as well as the heating and lighting generators.

The propellers themselves are driven by electricity generated by the diesel engines. This means that if they get stuck in the ice they aren't mechanically connected to any parts in the engine that could break.

Mukesh Gupta (left) and Klaus Hochheim with the laser wave slope system (Liz Kalaugher/IOP)
Measuring the ocean's roughness allows scientists to enjoy the seascape

The prospect of becoming stuck in the ice is not very likely at the moment. This year the ice in the Amundsen Gulf broke up about two or three weeks early.

Organisms that live underneath the ice are eaten by seabirds, seals and polar cod, Haakon Hop of the Norwegian Polar Institute tells me.

The early melting could affect the whole food chain so it's crucial to know more about how the system works in order to predict what could happen as the effects of climate change kick in.

"My impression is that the melting process is going really fast this year," said Haakon. "Not much is known about the effect of the melt on ecosystems."

As Haakon explains, the Circumpolar Flaw Lead Project is multidisciplinary, bringing both physical scientists and biologists together.

Large teams have been working together out on the ice taking cores, measuring light levels, and collecting zooplankton and ice fauna.

This combination of biological and physical samples can help scientists put together a better story to explain what's going on.

SUNDAY 22 JUNE: FUELLING UP

Overnight, we've moved to Summer Harbour, where the ship spends all day taking on fuel from the barge that's been moored here since last summer. There's still plenty of ice around near the coast and it helps to keep the barge steady as we moor alongside.

The captain has issued strict instructions for the scientists to tidy up their labs onboard. They need to tie down all their glassware ready for when the ship goes out on the open water. The refuelling means there's no data collection going on today, so it's an ideal time for a clean-up.

Fuel barge (Liz Kalaugher/IOP)
The ship refuels from a barge that was stored in the Arctic last summer

Yves Gratton of the University of Quebec is also taking the opportunity to move his rosette - a piece of kit for taking water samples - into place for the open water.

Until now, the rosette has been operating through the moon pool, an opening in the ship's hull that enables scientists to put instruments into the water even when the ship is surrounded by ice.

With its cylindrical arrangement of 25 12-litre sample bottles, the equipment is strangely reminiscent of bullets in a revolver chamber. From now on, it will be winched over the side of the boat into the sea to the required depth.

The rosette is one of the most important pieces of kit on the boat as many of the project teams need samples of water.

They'll use them to look at factors such as nutrient levels, contaminant concentrations, the amount of plankton, and the levels of gases dissolved in the water.

Rosette (Liz Kalaugher/IOP)
Yves Gratton's equipment is among the most important on the ship

Gas levels could provide information about how much of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide the ocean is currently removing from the atmosphere; there are concerns that climate change itself is reducing the amount that the ocean can absorb.

The teams share samples from the rosette and there are strict rules for who gets to take their water from the sample bottle first. The scientists looking at gas levels are first in the pecking order as once water is taken from the bottles, oxygen gets in and could affect their readings.

Meanwhile, entertainment on board the ship continues. Last night was one of the three nights a week the bar is open, and this morning saw a yoga class in the officers' mess.

SATURDAY 21 JUNE: WADING THROUGH MELT POOLS

Last night, we were surrounded by coastal fast ice attached to the land. But that ice has begun to break up and we're now drifting along with it towards the north-west.

The low winds forecast for tomorrow make it an ideal day to refuel the Amundsen from the barge that was moored nearby last summer and has been trapped in the ice all winter. So today is likely to be the last chance for heading out on the ice as soon it won't be thick enough to walk on safely.

Seal hole (Liz Kalaugher/IOP)
Haakon Hop dives through a seal hole to take samples from beneath the ice

It's an eerie feeling wading into the melt pools that are starting to appear on the surface of the ice. Somehow it doesn't hit you that you're standing on the sea, on ice just a metre thick, until you start stepping through water.

I spend the afternoon with a team investigating whether the melt pools change how much light passes through the ice.

Light affects both what type of organisms can live below and also how much energy enters the water, Andrea Rossnagel of the University of Manitoba tells me.

The scientists drilled two holes in the ice on either side of a melt pool and passed a rope between them. Then Haakon Hop of the Norwegian Polar Institute dived under the ice through a hole that a seal created earlier and measured the amount of light getting through at metre intervals along the length of the rope.

Having spent more than an hour in sub-zero temperature water, Haakon sprinted around the ice to warm up, before returning to the depths to take samples of water for his own work on zooplankton - tiny sea creatures that feed on algae and floating plant cells.

Ice hole (Liz Kalaugher/IOP)
Expedition chief scientist CJ Mundy (L) peers through the hole at sea snails

Not much is known about the concentrations of zooplankton just below the ice as it's hard to sample that close to the surface without diving. Although the Amundsen has a "moon pool" that researchers can use to access open water from inside the boat when it's surrounded by ice, they can't start to take measurements until a few metres below the surface.

Meanwhile, Debbie Armstrong of the University of Manitoba, drilled cylindrical samples of ice to measure the amount of harmful substances that might be present, such as mercury; while Stephane Thanassekos of Laval University cast a net about 20m (66ft) down through the seal hole to look for fish larvae.

He didn't find any today but a few weeks ago, they were plentiful.

FRIDAY 20 JUNE: BREAKING THE ICE

I'm travelling now with fellow journalist Maria Maggi from Italy and researchers Zheng Shaojun and Chen Zhihua from the Oceans University of China, who I meet up with in Inuvik.

This morning our journey hits a snag - it's too foggy for us to fly out to the Amundsen for the first part of the day so we wait at Inuvik airport for about six hours.

Canadian Coast Guard Ship Amundsen (Liz Kalaugher/IOP)
Home for the week: The Amundsen

Apparently, the large amounts of open water around the ship at this time of year can lead to fog. But in Inuvik after a cloudy start, it's bright, sunny and around 10C (50F). Tomorrow brings the solstice and the town will be hosting a half-marathon that kicks off at midnight, making full use of the current 24-hour-long daylight.

Jim from Aklak Air, a company owned by the Inuit community, stows our bags inside the Twin Otter, carefully avoiding the glass window in the floor which can be used to take pictures during aerial surveys.

And then we wait.

When it finally comes round, the trip out to the Amundsen is amazing. As we head further north, there are fewer and fewer trees as it becomes too cold for them to thrive. The landscape looks increasingly barren before finally becoming bare rock near the coast.

We see the ice that's still in place along the coastline before flying out over a stretch of open water to get our first glimpse of the Amundsen, moored in ice in Franklin Bay. A few hardy scientists are visible out on the ice nearby.

Arctic landscape  (Liz Kalaugher/IOP)
The landscape changes; the trees disappear

Earlier in the year, planes could land next to the ship but the ice is now too thin for that. So we head to a bleak gravel airstrip at Cape Parry. The strip was built to service a DEW station - part of an early warning radar system set up during the Cold War. There's basically nothing there other than a runway and the DEW station hidden behind a hill. The wind makes it feel pretty chilly even though it's about 3C (37F).

From the airstrip, the Amundsen's helicopter whisks us to the icebreaker in just a few minutes.

It's great to meet the 40 scientists on board at their nightly planning meeting and to sample the ship's excellent, and much commented on, carrot cake. And it's the first time I've been able to see ice and seals from my bedroom window.

THURSDAY 19 JUNE: HEADING NORTH

Just one flight into my epic six-flight trip to join the Amundsen icebreaker in the Canadian Arctic and I had already seen a polar bear. Admittedly, it was made of plastic and a little closer than I'd like to get to any real ones I come across during the next week, but I'm taking it as a good omen.

I'm heading north to join 40 researchers on board a ship that's on loan from the Canadian Coast Guard. In a project for International Polar Year (IPY), the scientists are investigating the effects of climate change off Banks Island.

Polar bear model (Liz Kalaugher/IOP)
As Liz moves further north, she picks up on a recurrent theme

The project is focusing on the circumpolar flaw lead - a region where a gap forms between the fast ice that stays fixed to the coastline and the more mobile sea ice. The presence of open water brings the flaw lead unique properties. It's a great habitat for wildlife and an ideal place for scientists to study the effects of climate change on both ecosystems and the ocean itself.

But before I can find out more about the science, I must continue my journey to Inuvik - a town of 3,000 people in Canada's far north. Following a spot of souvenir-browsing at Edmonton's departures lounge - where the specialities are moose fur slippers and jewellery made from fossil mammoth ivory - I fly to Yellow Knife, Norman Wells and then Inuvik. The seemingly obligatory airport polar bears become more realistic as I head north: the one at Yellowknife is stuffed and pretending to catch a seal, while Inuvik's bear is both stuffed and standing on its back legs roaring threateningly.

In Inuvik I meet Liz Gordon, regional co-ordinator for the Amundsen project, who tells me about some of the signs of climate change she's experienced. It's hard for Inuit people to predict the condition of the ice these days, which makes travelling across it difficult and dangerous.

Summer ice cover in the Arctic has declined sharply

"We can't take chances on that ice any more; it doesn't go as solid as it used to," she said. Indeed, according to Liz's colleague, Stephanie Meakin, some communities have gone back to using dogs for transport rather than snowmobile, as dogs will sense where the ice is dangerously thin and refuse to cross it.

Last summer, the extent of sea-ice across the Arctic reached a record low, and predictions for this year aren't looking too promising either.

Liz says the wildlife is changing as well as the ice. Last summer, grasshoppers arrived in Inuvik for the first time on record. And a polar bear was seen on the Dempster Highway, 600km (370 miles) further south than its usual coastal habitat.

In a part of the project dubbed "the two ways of knowing", Inuit communities are sharing their traditional knowledge about wildlife and ice conditions with scientists. In return, the researchers are providing predictions about how the climate will change in the future. This could help the communities to plan how they can try to adapt to climate change.

Tomorrow I'll join the scientists on board and find out how well the acupressure wrist band I've bought to combat seasickness really works.

Dr Liz Kalaugher is the editor of Environmental Research Web, an Institute of Physics publication that keeps its readers up to date on a range of environmental topics from around the globe

Canadian Arctic (BBC)



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