Toronto Star : Vanished 'bridge' jolts ice pack sleuths

Monday, March 17, 2008

Vanished 'bridge' jolts ice pack sleuths


Peter Calamai | Science Reporter | March 17, 2008

ABOARD CCGS AMUNDSEN–Canada's largest research project in International Polar Year has been forced to switch gears because Arctic sea ice is disappearing faster than anyone imagined.

Massive shrinkage of the permanent ice pack last summer scuppered plans to run continuous measurements and experiments starting this month at a semi-permanent base out on the ice, south of Banks Island in the Western Arctic.

The experiments were an important part in a four-year, $40 million study of the unprecedented impact of climate change on the entire Arctic ice ecosystem. Of special interest are so-called flaw leads, gashes many kilometres long that regularly open and close in the ice attached to coastlines.

The Canadian Coast Guard ship Amundsen, crammed with labs and exotic scientific instruments, arrived in the Western Arctic in October to allow researchers to carry out the first-ever investigation of the changes in ice, water and atmosphere spanning four seasons.

"It throws a real wrench into what we wanted to do. We're struggling to adapt," said Tim Papakyriakoi, chief scientist for the current stage of the expedition.

Scientists had intended to travel to the semi-permanent base by snowmobile from the Amundsen, which was supposed to be moored nearby, safely sheltered in the fixed ice behind an ice bridge.

The bridge normally forms every winter across 120 kilometres of the Amundsen Gulf, as drifting ice becomes trapped in a chokepoint between Nelson Head, at the southern tip of Banks Island, and Cape Perry, the nearest point on the Northwest Territories mainland.

But the bridge hasn't formed this year because ice floes are passing freely through the chokepoint into the Beaufort Sea, which is relatively unclogged because of the shrinkage in the ice pack. Scientists estimate that an unprecedented 1.3 million square kilometres of ice disappeared in the summer of 2007 from the permanent Arctic ice pack, the zone that remains ice-covered at the height of summer.

So instead, the teams of biologists, oceanographers, chemists and physicists are probably going to have to settle for brief flying visits once a week to a makeshift camp in Prince of Wales strait. That is roughly 100 kilometres from a new position that the Amundsen may attempt to reach later this week.

"We won't have as much information to follow biological processes that are changing over time out on the permanent ice," says Papakyriakoi, a professor at the University of Manitoba, which is leading the Circumpolar Flaw Lead System Study.

Now at the halfway point, the 10-month study involves 200 investigators from Canada and a dozen other countries, including Norway, Germany, France, Russia and the U.K.

The Amundsen, a medium-sized icebreaker retrofitted with the latest in scientific gear, sailed from Quebec last July and won't return south until next August, conducting other Arctic research before and after the flaw lead study.

In an interview yesterday, Papakyriakoi said the rejigging of the tests will mean more time devoted to research in the thin drifting ice and less to investigations on the thicker ice that's attached to the shore and more stable.

"But it's all still novel. No one has done this before," he said.

Flaw leads occur throughout the Arctic and are also being probed in other countries as part of International Polar Year.

More than 10,000 scientists from 63 countries are involved in IPY projects in both the Arctic and Antarctic, joined by 50,000 laypeople.

Because flaw leads occur in shallow coastal waters, light penetrates the waters deeply and combines with nutrients to make them biological incubators that feed the rest of the Arctic.

The leads also provide safe passage for a relatively small ship like the Amundsen that would be vulnerable to storms out in the midst of the ice pack.