Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

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

The Globe and Mail

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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".

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

"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.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies