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Onboard the CCGS Amundsen on an Arctic research cruise, Sept. 14, 2014. (Ivan Semeniuk/The Globe and Mail)

Onboard the CCGS Amundsen on an Arctic research cruise, Sept. 14, 2014.

(Ivan Semeniuk/The Globe and Mail)

Aboard the Amundsen: Ship’s scientists probe the future of Western Arctic 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. This is his first dispatch.

It’s 1 a.m. and the Beaufort Sea is frigid and dark. But on the Amundsen, a Canadian Coast Guard ship turned floating laboratory, work doesn’t stop for the night.

Crew members and researchers wearing anti-exposure suits manoeuvre briskly about the foredeck as they prepare special nets, cameras and other devices for probing the ocean’s depths.

One after the other, each is lowered into the churning waves then hoisted back up, sometimes bearing thimblefuls of tiny organisms, sometimes bucket loads of muck that wriggle with strange creatures.

This is science on a changing frontier.

Last week and nearly 2,000 kilometres to the east, another Canadian Coast Guard ship, the Laurier, helped to locate one of the long-lost ships of the Franklin expedition.

But on the Amundsen, the aim is to probe the future rather than the past. The ship serves as a platform for a 38-member science team that is trying to discern what’s in store for the Arctic as the climate warms and the pace of northern development accelerates.

This year, that quest is taking the Amundsen further west than ever before. On Tuesday, it reached Barrow, Alaska, and this week, the ship is pressing on toward waters north of Siberia.

“For us, it’s all new territory,” said Louis Fortier, chief scientist on board and director of ArcticNet, the research consortium behind the voyage. “And there are several things we’re interested in.”

With a long list of scientific objectives to meet and operating costs running around $58,000 per day, there’s no time to waste. The crew operates in shifts as the ship moves from station to station on the open sea. Scientists sleep when they can and gather samples and data when the schedule dictates, be it day or night.

The Western Arctic is the focal point for the expedition because it sits on a biological front line. Organisms here are experiencing the most rapid loss of summer sea ice anywhere in the Arctic – currently, the region averages about three additional ice-free days each year. It’s also a part of the North where the oil industry is looking to tap into offshore reserves both in Canada and the U.S.

Both could have a profound impact on the ocean ecosystem. But to understand what that means, scientists need to know what’s living here right now – knowledge that can’t by acquired remotely.

“To actually see how the biological community changes – that requires being here on a ship,” said Lee Cooper, a marine scientist at the University of Maryland and one of the veteran researchers on board.

As it happens, the ocean is full of life tonight. A short trawl of the bottom delivers oodles of shrimp, worms, tunicates, sea cucumbers and other creatures that inhabit the murky sea bed.

Weirdest of all is Gorgonocephalus, a baroque-looking cousin to the sea star that uses its curled, multibranched limbs to ensnare prey.

It’s a queer and bountiful harvest, more abundant than what is typically found closer to Canada’s Arctic shores. Nutrients carried from the Pacific through the Bering Strait have found their way here and have fertilized the ocean floor, creating a biological “hot spot”.

Noémie Friscourt, a graduate student in marine biology at the University of Quebec at Rimouski, will spend a bleary-eyed night classifying and counting up the hundreds of specimens brought up by her net. Some are bottled in formaldehyde for further analysis back home. By measuring the accumulation of various carbon isotopes in the bottom dwellers’ tissues, Ms. Friscourt hopes to reconstruct a detailed portrait of the Arctic food web.

“We want to know who eats who,” she said.

Such relationships are key to understanding environmental change in the Arctic. If one species is adversely affected, the impact can reverberate through the system, right up to the walruses and gray whales that dive down to feed off the sea floor.

The work also matters to northern communities that still rely on the environment as a food source.

Alexis Burt, a research associate with the University of Manitoba, packages a portion of a trawl that will later be tested for contaminants including mercury and a variety of industrial chemicals.

Ms. Burt once performed the same task for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, but the monitoring was among the programs jettisoned by the federal government in 2012 as part of a wave of cuts to federal laboratories.

“If we don’t monitor then we don’t know what the changes are going to be,” she said.

Back on deck, the sampling carries on till dawn as “Ship FM” – the Amundsen’s intercom – rolls through a preprogrammed setlist of rock tunes. At one point The World I Know by Collective Soul wafts across the deck. It’s a fitting refrain for those labouring through the Arctic night, trying to perceive where the planet is drifting.

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Follow on Twitter: @ivansemeniuk

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