Aboard the Amundsen: Breaking ice for broadband

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.

Sunday, March 9
by Emily Chung, CBCNews.ca

Many on board the Amundsen are eagerly awaiting the Crew vs. Science soccer game scheduled for Sunday at 1:30 p.m.

In the morning, the BR tractor carefully plows and grooms some of the rugged landscape, which is punctuated by irregular chunks of ice and snow, forming a rectangular soccer pitch.

A BR tractor plows and grooms the rugged ice and snow in preparation for Sunday afternoon's soccer game. (Emily Chung/CBC)

Then an announcement comes over the PA system informing us that we are moving.

It's because our internet service is down, and that's a serious problem.

When I arrived on the Amundsen, the ship was firmly embedded in a large plate of ice in the Amundsen Gulf about 25 kilometres south of Banks Island. Remaining stationary in the ice saves fuel, which is crucial because the ice is expected to block access to the ship's refueling station until July.

The Amundsen's ice plate has rotated since it arrived, rotating the ship with it.

When the ship is facing a particular direction, certain ship components obstruct the satellite signal that provides the internet service. The ship was to exchange dozens of crew and scientists for dozens of new ones in four days, and e-mail was needed to arrange the mass influx-exodus.

And so the ship was scheduled to move at 1:30 p.m.

Many would-be soccer fans make the best of the situation and head to the bridge to watch some breaking ice.

It is decided the ship will follow the same path it took to get into the ice plate and move to open water so some researchers can collect water samples there. Later in the day, it will return more or less to its previous spot, rotate 45 degrees and then back in.

Helmswoman VĂ©ronique Cyr steers the boat back to its original location, but rotates it to restore internet service. (Emily Chung/CBC)

It's easy to imagine an icebreaker cutting through the ice like a knife through butter, but it doesn't happen quite that way. The Amundsen crawls forward, smashing small chunks of ice in series, making the passengers feels as though the boat is driving over a good, dirt road. And then the boat reverses, building up momentum for its next ram forward. Chunks of bluish ice bob in a roiling slurry in front of the ship. Plates of ice buckle alongside the ship's flanks, and water wells up between them, washing over the floating white pieces as they tip from side to side.

The ship soon reaches open water, and stops for the afternoon so researchers can be lowered from a crane in a cage to sample the water. Graduate student Dustin Isleifson recalls that earlier in the study, the cage he was on was lowered a little too much and he was dunked up to neck deep in the icy waters. Fortunately, he was wearing a bright orange, waterproof immersion suit, and no one is about to get into the cage without one this time either.

After dinner, the setting sun casts a warm, rosy tone over the bluish ice as the ship returns to the middle of the ice plate. This time, it smashes largely through new ice instead of the refrozen ice roughed up by the boat's previous entry. At one point, a seal pops its head up in the slurry of ice and water left in front of the boat during its reversal.

The Amundsen heads toward the sunset. (Emily Chung/CBC)

When the boat comes to rest once again, only a pink glow is left on the horizon.