Aboard the Amundsen: A sled under the sundogs

Emily Chung, CBCNews.ca's regional journalist for Ottawa, is spending seven days on the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Amundsen, a scientific research icebreaker in the Amundsen Gulf.

Friday, March 7
by Emily Chung, CBCNews.ca

The next morning, Gautier and I head out with Ralf Staebler, an Environment Canada scientist and Phil Tackett, a graduate student at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, to check on some equipment that had been left on a sled about a kilometre from the ship, which is sitting at 71 degrees north latitude and 123 degrees west longitude, in the Amundsen Gulf off Banks Island.

Ralf Staebler and Phil Tackett get their laptop ready from inside the BR tractor. (Emily Chung/CBC)

The ship's captain Stéphane Julien is our gunman and chauffeur. He carefully eases the BR tractor over small chunks of ice and snow as well as the occasional metre-high ridge while Black Sabbath and Nirvana tunes blast inside the cabin.

Staebler and Tackett's sled carries over $125,000 in equipment, including instruments that measure the difference in certain gases at ground level and about 2.5 metres above – namely carbon dioxide, elemental mercury, bromine oxide, and ozone, to determine whether concentrations are higher close to the snow and ice or higher up. The study is part of work to understand why mercury levels are rising among the wild fish and mammals that the Inuit rely on for food.

The ship's captain Stéphane Julien was also our chauffeur and the gunman who protected us from polar bears. (Emily Chung/CBC)

From where the sled sits, we can see the Amundsen in the distance. There is fog behind it, suggesting the presence of open water, and the steep cliffs of Banks Island rising up behind that. Toward the east, the sun is above the horizon with curved rainbows on either side called sundogs – they're caused by reflection off the ice and they're friends that the sun doesn't often have where I live.

Staebler and Tackett examine the instruments to find that they are dead.

They change the batteries – each one about the size of a lunchbox and about 27 kilos each. The eight batteries are good for about two days.

The two scientists then try to download some of the data from the sled via a wireless connection. They have a limited time only – the laptop they use lasts only 10 to 15 minutes outside before the cold temporarily kills the batteries.

After several minutes, nothing happens.

Rainbows called sundogs flank the sun. They're caused by ice crystals acting as a prism. (Emily Chung/CBC)

They decide to have the sled towed back to the ship later that day so they can figure out what the problem is.

By the time the sled arrives later that afternoon, everything is running. It turns out the instruments just needed some time to warm up from -25 C after the new batteries were installed.