In shades of red and white, a powerful ship bristling with equipment pushes through an icy channel. Towering behind the vessel is a map of Northern Canada. Although the ship may not be familiar, the picture will be to anyone who has handled a Canadian $50 bill. It’s also a scene that, minus the map of Canada, has played out in real life every year for two decades.
In 2003, the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Amundsen emerged from the dry docks of Les Méchins, Que., a 24-year-old icebreaker with a new purpose – revitalizing Canada’s research efforts in studying a changing Arctic. But in order to keep track of what is changing and how fast, there needs to be the scientific equivalent of before and after photos.
In many places across the Canadian Arctic, such as the waters of the Hudson Strait between Baffin Island and northern Quebec, the Amundsen has enabled the collection of these kinds of snapshots going back nearly 20 years. In this sense, the brainchild of the late oceanographer Louis Fortier has unquestionably done what it was meant to.
At the same time, its mission has only grown in urgency as the Arctic continues to warm faster than the rest of the planet, and there are still places where very little is known scientifically.
During the four-month 2023 research season, the Amundsen visited two of these little-studied areas. One was the northern edge of Nares Strait between Greenland and Ellesmere Island – the northernmost point it had ever been; the other was Foxe Basin, a large inland sea that straddles the Arctic Circle north of Hudson Bay. When the Amundsen departed Resolute Bay, Nunavut, on Oct. 5 for the last leg of the expedition, one of its many goals was to conduct the most intensive study of the basin in 65 years.
What qualifies the Amundsen to tackle such a task is the collaboration at its core. Although the vessel is owned by the Coast Guard, the scientific program onboard is managed by Amundsen Science, an organization hosted at Université Laval.
On each expedition leg, the vessel carries roughly 80 people from around the globe. Half are Coast Guard crew members, and the other half are scientists and technicians, a blend of first-timers and veterans of past expeditions. Together, they use an array of scientific instruments to collect everything from sediment samples from layers beneath the sea floor to the air above the ocean waves.
The three weeks of around-the-clock work on the way back to Quebec City will not only provide the data needed to help track change, but it will also help scientists answer broader questions about everything from natural carbon cycles to which contaminants have found their way into the Arctic – knowledge that, in turn, will inform ways that this vitally important part of the planet can be better protected.