Behind the scenes on an Arctic research vessel

The CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent has been carrying scientists across the Arctic Ocean for 18 years. We followed a 23-year-old Concordia student who got the chance to join the ship's crew.

Eating muffins on an Arctic ice floe wasn’t exactly how Susie McLatchie expected to spend her 23rd birthday, but she considers it a highlight of her trip to northern Canada last fall.

A microbiology master’s student at Concordia University, McLatchie studies the genetic material in microscopic Arctic organisms. Most of her research is numerical, analyzing millions of genetic sequences using computer programs.

When she was offered the opportunity to help collect samples herself, McLatchie jumped at the chance for a behind-the-scenes look at what actually happens on research trips up north.

“I was so thrilled! What an adventure,” she told The Pigeon in an interview. “I was excited to do something totally new. It also felt very special to be able to [see] the environment I’m studying.”

In September 2020, McLatchie joined 14 scientists and technicians and 57 Coast Guard crewmembers aboard the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent, Canada’s flagship icebreaker, for a six-week Arctic research cruise.

At 120 metres long—longer than a standard soccer pitch—the Louis is the largest icebreaker in Canada’s fleet. Painted in the distinct red and white of Canada’s coast guard, the steel icebreaker cuts an imposing figure against the endless white and blue of the snowy ice and sky, adding a splash of colour to the landscape.

“Some days, when it was overcast, it was as if I was looking at a black and white photo,” McLatchie said. “I was captivated by how black the water was. I’m used to looking at greenish coastal water [off Vancouver Island], so that was new.”

The trip was part of a partnership between Canada’s Joint Ocean Ice Studies (JOIS) program and the Beaufort Gyre Exploration Project. The teams have been going up to the Arctic every year since 2003, and their data provide valuable insights into how Canada’s northern environment is changing over time.

“Pancake ice” forms as the ocean freezes and circular motion breaks the thin new ice. MIKE DEMPSEY

The Arctic region is experiencing some of the most dramatic environmental changes on our planet. Studies show that on average, Arctic air temperatures are rising twice as fast as the rest of the world, the Arctic Ocean is warming and becoming less salty, and permafrost, snow, and ice are melting at alarming rates.

Mike Dempsey is a senior Arctic oceanographic technician at the Institute of Ocean Sciences (IOS) in Sidney, B.C. He’s witnessed many of these changes firsthand on his trips up north.

“What we’ve seen is that the ice regime in the Beaufort Sea has changed dramatically in the last 30 years,” he told The Pigeon. “It’s certainly changed in the last 20 years that I spent in the Arctic.”

Arctic sea ice fluctuates with the seasons. Every winter, new ice forms and hardens. As temperatures rise in the summer, part of the ice melts away, but some remains frozen throughout the season.

Ice that survives more than one summer is called “multi-year ice,” and its shrinking volume has scientists and polar communities worried. Some climate models suggest that by 2050, the Arctic will be entirely ice-free in summer months.

“We’re still getting the same first-year ice,” Dempsey said. “But we’re not getting the buildup of multi-year ice […] That’s a big change.”

Multi-year ice forms the solid ocean layer northern communities depend on for hunting and fishing. As the ice melts, their hunting grounds shrink, putting traditional practices and livelihood at risk.

Arctic ice cover is also vital to the albedo effect, which is a measure of how much radiation from the sun is reflected back from the Earth’s surface. Reduced ice cover decreases the albedo, which means more heat is absorbed into northern waters.

As a result, the ocean warms up, melting ice from below. At the same time, CO2 emissions from human activity increase air temperature, melting ice from above. More ice melts, exposing more water, warming up the ocean—amplifying the effect in a cycle.

While the Arctic Ocean makes up just three per cent of the Earth’s ocean surface area, global circulation mechanisms in both the oceans and the atmosphere ensure that changes observed in the Arctic are felt in local weather patterns across the planet. The Arctic Ocean helps regulate temperatures across the world, so monitoring what happens there gives scientists a better idea of what trends to expect elsewhere.

“We spend a lot of time looking at the interconnectivity of the Arctic, the Atlantic, and the Pacific,” Dempsey said. “The idea is that by studying the Arctic, we’re actually studying other parts of North America.”

Rick Nelson and Mike Dempsey deploy the CTD rosette on a late July evening. JANE EERT

Some of the ice-covered research stations that scientists would visit 2003 are now in open water, Sarah Zimmerman, an oceanographer with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), told The Pigeon in an interview.

Once a “little kid crunching through frozen puddles and thinking ice was just the coolest thing,” she’s now one of JOIS’s chief scientists aboard the Louis. Her job is to create a workable science plan for each cruise with the projects’ principal investigators, and then “making the science happen.”

Zimmerman’s tasks include everything from juggling research goals to monitoring weather and ice reports, as well as keeping an eye on the wellbeing of the science team and their instruments, a task she shares with Dempsey.

“Arctic science is 95 per cent logistics,” Dempsey explained. “You have to have the equipment working, it has to be in the right location, it has to work in a remote area, and it has to work with the people who are using it.”

Despite the best-laid plans, any research cruise also involves some troubleshooting, whether it’s a global pandemic limiting team size, stormy weather causing detours around a station, or damage to an instrument in an encounter with an overly curious polar bear.

“It’s the Arctic—you never know what’s going to happen,” Zimmermann laughed.

To maximize data collection, the Louis’ science team works around the clock. Most of the team is split into two groups: the Day Watch works from noon to midnight, and the Night Watch is up from midnight to noon.

Broadly speaking, the groups measure the properties of seawater. One of the main ways they collect seawater is by using a CTD rosette, an instrument used to collect water samples and data about the water’s salinity, temperature, and depth.

Some scientists, like McLatchie, don’t work on watches. Their workday begins whenever the ship arrives at an area where the rosette is going to be used. The JOIS team has returned to the same locations every year for 18 years, which lets them track how the water changes over time.

After collecting samples, McLatchie and her colleagues filter them in the lab. The filters sit in a freezer on the ship, along with other samples collected for scientists back on land.

“Labelling and keeping the logs up to date takes some time,” McLatchie said. “It’s very important for the labelling to be meticulous so we can keep track of the location, depth and other properties associated with the sample.”

Working around the clock meant crew members like McLatchie would sometimes have to keep pretty weird sleeping and eating schedules.

“We would mostly wrap up at a station after having worked through the night, so we’d head off to breakfast,” she recalled. “For me, this meant a stack of pancakes right before bed followed by four hours of sleep until the next station.”

The crew also has its own traditions to break up the daily routine.

On Sundays they don their white uniforms instead of the typical steel blue, and the four cooks and five stewards serve up a special breakfast of eggs benny.

The crew disembarks to conduct different studies on the ice’s surface. JANE EERT

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, no international scientists were able to come aboard the Louis, meaning the ship had an all-Canadian crew. COVID-19 tests before boarding and strict health protocols had everyone wearing masks and practicing social distancing during a two-week quarantine. A sticky note calendar counted down the days.

Halfway through the trip, the team deployed two ice buoys and wedged the Louis into the ice to stop the ship in its tracks. There, scientists would study the ice.

With the ship’s engines turned off, McLatchie said she marvelled at how peaceful the area was.

“It was pretty wild being in the middle of nowhere with only a few other people,” she said.

It was her first time off the ship since it set sail, and after delivering coffee and muffins to the ice crew led by Dempsey, McLatchie set to work alongside her teammates.

Drilling a hole through the ice separating the team from 3,000 meters of water below took some time. McLatchie and her partner were putting together an instrument called SIMBA to measure the evolution of snow and ice thickness throughout the year. The device reads temperatures in the air, snow, ice, and water.

“It comes with this packet of instructions—it’s like assembling IKEA furniture, basically,” McLatchie explained, laughing.

At the same time, Dempsey’s team was setting up an Ice-Tethered Profiler (ITP), an instrument that zips down a wire in the top 700 metres of the ocean. Instead of being anchored to the seafloor, the ITP is tethered to an ice flow. Scientists can communicate directly with the instrument using satellite to track data in real time.

The team raced to get everything set up before nightfall, triple-checking that all worked as intended. Darkness is a safety concern for the team, as predators like polar bears are especially difficult to see at night.

“We had to pack up pretty quick because the sun was setting, and it’s kind of scary, because it gets dark—unlike anywhere I’ve ever been,” McLatchie said.

The CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent, Canada’s flagship icebreaker. MIKE DEMPSEY

The JOIS and Beaufort Gyre projects are just two of the many research initiatives currently underway in northern Canada. For some research, a massive icebreaker like the Louis isn’t always a practical choice.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) research scientist Kristina Brown has been going up north for 14 years—figuring out how to travel lightweight can be a challenge.

“[We’ve tried] all modes of transportation we could think of,” she said. “We do small boat work, medium-sized boat work, coast guard icebreaker work, ATVs and snowmobiles, and some local floatplane and helicopter work, too.”

Laughing, she added, “If I could go sampling by bike, I would!”

A chemical oceanographer, Brown is creating a database of geochemical properties across the Arctic Oceans. Twenty of the world’s longest rivers flow into the Arctic Ocean, meaning it contains about 10 per cent of global river runoff.

These rivers bring water with different chemical compositions into the ocean, and chemical composition determines how much carbon dioxide the ocean’s surface absorbs and releases. This is an important part of the climate cycle.

Brown collaborates closely with northern communities and other researchers to collect samples across the region at different times of the year. She’s even gotten other scientists to help out during their own expeditions.

Her team created sampling kits the size of a small Ziploc bag, containing “gloves, filters and all sample bottles you’d need to collect water,” she said.

“Then we reached out to anyone doing research in the Arctic and asked if they would collect some samples along the way.”

Researchers visiting northern Canada aren’t the only key players in Arctic research. Inuit and First Nations communities in northern and Arctic regions are finally being acknowledged for their historical and current understanding of the climate.

“The aim is to always involve the people who work there or live there,” Dempsey said.

One initiative, ArcticNet’s North by North program, supports “northern research led by northern people, based on northern knowledge and needs,” as a vital part of studying climate change in the Canadian north.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, a nonprofit organization representing over 65,000 Inuit, also released a Climate Change Strategy in 2019, outlining the role of Inuit in climate change prevention and describing Inuit-driven climate initiatives taking a grassroots approach to research.

“Quite often, there are things that [Inuit communities] know that we don’t,” Dempsey said.

Partnerships between traditional knowledge and scientific methods are opening up data otherwise unavailable to scientists while building relationships and trust through scientific collaboration.

“Even though I’ve been working in the Arctic for 20 years and go up three to five times a year, I’m still a tourist,” Dempsey said. “As much as I learned about it, I’m still somebody from somewhere else, and viewing it through that lens.”

Looking back on her experience, McLatchie said she feels grateful to have taken part in such vital research. The Arctic Ocean is extremely susceptible to climate change, so studying this sensitive environment can help scientists understand how changes are evolving globally.

“Being a part of this research was an incredible experience,” McLatchie said. “I learned so much and I really had a blast.”

“It’s a special place—I’d love to go again.”

Helen Gemmrich is a journalism master’s student at Concordia University, and has a BSc. Hons. in physics and computer science from the University of Victoria. If she’s not outside in nature, she’s probably baking.

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