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The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Amundsen parks on an ice floe in the Beaufort Sea earlier this month. (Ivan Semeniuk/The Globe and Mail)
The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Amundsen parks on an ice floe in the Beaufort Sea earlier this month. (Ivan Semeniuk/The Globe and Mail)

Scientists aboard the Amundsen operate in dangerous conditions while researching sea ice Add to ...

Ivan Semeniuk, The Globe’s science reporter, is aboard the Amundsen on a weeks-long scientific journey to explore the impact of the warming climate and northern development on the ocean.

When Arctic sea ice makes the news, the focus is inevitably on quantity.

The amount of ice on the ocean in summer is shrinking by 14 per cent a decade, a well-documented effect of climate change. The prospect of a largely ice-free Arctic by mid-century, the impact that will have on the northern environment and its potential effects on weather patterns in much of North America and Eurasia, have raised the profile of sea ice to iconic status in the continuing debate over how the human causes of climate change should be addressed.

But for those who study sea ice, what matters most day-to-day is quality rather than quantity.

Sea ice is a wonderfully complex and sometimes frightening material that comes in many forms – several of which could be observed directly from the Amundsen, a Canadian Coast Guard ship that is the country’s premier platform for ice research.

For example, there is “grease ice,” a thin layer of newly forming ice that rides atop the ocean swells like an oil slick. There is also multiyear ice, cyan-coloured chunks that have survived many seasons without melting, their vivid hue a function of the way light interacts with the long-frozen ice crystals within.

But for Lauren Candlish, a research associate with the University of Manitoba, the problem on this voyage has been too much “rotten ice.”

Her goal, and that of her colleagues, is to deploy a series of remote stations that will radio back data and allow researchers to track selected ice floes on the Beaufort Sea and monitor atmospheric conditions there. The data will help scientists better understand – and hopefully predict – the behaviour of ice in an increasingly unpredictable setting.

But rotten ice is not what Ms. Candlish needs. Like Swiss cheese, it is full of holes, which can easily be seen from the Amundsen’s helicopter.

As ice floes warm in the summer, bright blue ponds of melt water appear on their surfaces. When the ice is rotten, the ponds look black.

“That means they’ve melted right through,” Ms. Candlish said. Such ice is thin enough to break up and melt away or be crushed by collisions with denser chunks of ice – either of which would destroy a station.

During the Amundsen’s tour of the Beaufort this month, the challenge of finding good ice has been compounded by foggy conditions that have often kept the helicopter in its hangar on the aft deck. But on Monday the ship encountered a suitable floe of thick ice, and six of us climbed into “the cage” and were lowered directly onto it by one of the ship’s cranes.

Studying the properties of Arctic sea ice is a key part of the science that takes place aboard the Amundsen. It is also the riskiest.

This was tragically demonstrated last year when the ship’s helicopter crashed into the icy waters of M’Clure Strait claiming the lives of pilot Daniel Dubé, scientist Klaus Hochheim, and the Amundsen’s commanding officer, Marc Thibault.

The crash occurred several kilometres from the ship and all three died of exposure in the water before they were found. The incident stunned the close-knit community of researchers and crew members who work on the Amundsen and the seamen who found themselves retrieving the bodies of their friends and co-workers.

A final report from the Transportation Safety Board is still pending, but some of the effects of the accident are apparent in the heightened caution with which ice work is handled on the ship.

At the time of the accident, the helicopter had a cone-shaped device mounted on its front that uses an electromagnetic field to measure ice thickness. The method requires flying low over the ice, which means there is little time for a pilot to react when something goes wrong. The device is no longer used.

Preliminary findings from the accident suggest the victims were either not wearing the right kind of protective gear or not wearing it properly. Now, everyone who flies in the Amundsen’s helicopter – which is the only way of boarding and leaving the ship when it is stationed in the North – wears an immersion suit at all times.

The suit is a newer model than those used in previous years, with elastic cuffs and collar – designed to prevent water seeping in – that cannot be loosened. Those who use the helicopter as part of science work on the ice must now take an additional survival course that includes a staged immersion in a cold tank.

Yet even under the best circumstances, researchers know that survival in Arctic waters comes down to a matter of minutes, not hours.

“It’s in the back of your mind – something you always think about,” said David Babb, also with the University of Manitoba.

As we trudged carefully across the ice this week, we were also alert to another danger – polar bears. For that reason, research teams are accompanied by crew members armed with rifles when working on sea ice.

While caution about ice work remains at a high level, the research has not stopped. Balanced against the risk is the need for detailed information on the changing behaviour of sea ice, which poses a growing hazard for northern navigation because decreasing ice overall means more ice on the move.

“Yes, there is less ice in the summer – but the ice that is present is quite dangerous,” said Matt Arkett, who manages the remote sensing group at the Canadian Ice Service in Ottawa and who accompanied the Manitoba team on this outing.

Mr. Arkett said that while ice monitoring from orbiting satellites, particularly by Canada’s Radarsat series, has revolutionized the field, satellite data must still be validated with direct observation on the ice so it can be interpreted correctly.

The stations are assembled in less than two hours. By the end of Monday, two were erected on two separate ice floes, making a total of five deployed from the Amundsen this summer. The stations are solar-powered with batteries design to survive the long, dark Arctic winter.

“About a year is what we’re hoping from them,” Ms. Candlish said.

Although data from the stations will be publicly available, part of the cost of the project is covered by Exxon-Mobil – a reflection of the oil industry’s need to better understand ice hazards as companies increasingly look to develop reserves in the Beaufort.

There is an obvious irony in this, since the use of fossil fuels is ultimately the driving force behind the vast transformations in the Arctic. But this does not alter the inescapable fact that whether or not Arctic oil development proceeds, change is already under way and information is needed.

“Simply put, if activity in the Arctic increases, then the risk of incidents related to ice hazards will rise for the foreseeable future,” said Derek Mueller, an assistant professor at Carleton University whose work on the Amundsen is related to large ice islands that have recently been observed breaking away from Canada’s northern archipelago.

As those on the Amundsen can attest, ice remains the defining feature of Canada’s Arctic waters. And while its quantity may be diminishing, its relevance seems only to grow.

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Follow on Twitter: @ivansemeniuk

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