What's unique to the 'last ice area' in the High Arctic? Canadian researchers are finding out

The “last ice area” in the High Arctic is hard to reach and therefore relatively unknown— but the government of Canada is trying to change that with a research project into the area’s ecology.

Researchers will study the multi-year ice for at least the next three years

The group poses for a photo in Alert. The team is from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Defence Research and Development Canada, the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany and the University of Bristol. (Submitted by Christine Michel)

The "last ice area" in the High Arctic is hard to reach and therefore relatively unknown — but the government of Canada is trying to change that with a research project into the area's ecology.

Most of the remaining mult-year sea ice butts up against Ellesmere Island in Nunavut. It stretched across much more of Arctic Ocean a few decades ago, but now makes up only a quarter of the ocean, according the project's lead researcher Christine Michel.

She says the project will compare the ice that melts and reforms every year — or first year ice — with the ice that has been around for multiple years.

"We may find out what we are losing, we may find out also what remains there, we may find out unique biodiversity or even unique processes that are important for the ecosystem," she said.   

Michel is leading a team of researchers from various federal departments including Fisheries and Oceans and Environment and Climate Change and working with the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany.

Two heated tents were set up at the camp to process samples and keep the electronics for the unmanned underwater vehicle. (Submitted by Christine Michel)

The German team brought an unmanned underwater vehicle with them to study the structure of the ice from underneath, which Michel says has deep ridges where fish and other creatures might live.

The multiyear ice varies in thickness from three to five metres.

The team set up a camp about a 40-minute snowmobile ride from the military base in Alert and was on site from April 25 to June 6. They commuted daily from the base.

New species?

The camp was set up to do some preliminary sample processing, but Michel says most samples will be studied further in labs in Winnipeg and other cities in southern Canada.

From her own observation, Michel says the most interesting thing she came across was a type of shrimp that clung to the ice cores that looked different from the shrimp she'd seen in her decades of Arctic research.

Christine Michel is a research scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Winnipeg, who is specialized in Arctic marine science. (Submitted by Christine Michel)

"I keep saying that it had nail polish at the end of its legs, it had little red endings to the legs, which is not something I had commonly seen either. Just by the look of it, it was a different species than we commonly see when we have a hole [in] the ice," Michel said.

She says they won't know if it actually is a new species until it is sent frozen or preserved to Winnipeg, where it will undergo biochemical analysis. But new or not, she's curious to find out more about the shrimp.

Multiple measurements

The research team surveyed marine mammals by flying over the area in a Twin Otter, and researchers from Environment Canada checked animals for contaminants.

The camp had a time-lapse camera in place while it measured temperatures, salinity and sea current direction.

The research will continue for at least the next three years, but Michel says she hopes the project will be extended to become a long-term monitoring project.

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