Aboard the Amundsen: Micro muskoxen and thin ice

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.

Monday, March 10
by Emily Chung, CBCNews.ca

On Monday, Gautier and I are invited on a helicopter survey with Capt. Stéphane Julien and chief scientist Gary Stern.

The purpose is to scout out a suitable place for an ice camp – a place where scientists can take measurements from a fixed location over a period of weeks.

As you may recall, the ship (and the equipment either on board or nearby) is currently embedded in a plate of ice drifting through the Amundsen Gulf. That makes is difficult to rule out a change in location as the cause of certain events that might be recorded in the data the scientists collect, so many would like a fixed ice camp.

Stern and Julien decide to look at the Prince of Wales Strait on the east side of Banks Island, which lies more than an hour by helicopter each way. They want a flat spot with ice about a metre thick.

We set out at 1:30 p.m. on a Bell 212 piloted by Mike McNulty and Claude Marchand.

First, we pass over the brown cliffs at the southeastern tip of Banks Island, horizontally-striped walls of rock that plunge straight down into the ice of the gulf. The top of the cliffs and the rest of the island's surface is covered in snow and smooth, worn rock that looks as though it has been sitting at the bottom of a rushing river for centuries.

Julien opened the door of the helicopter to take photos of the steep Banks Island cliffs as we fly by. (Emily Chung/CBC)

It's hard to tell how high up we are until Julien motions for me to look out the window on the left side. Down below, I see what looks like a group of maybe 15 dark brown ants gathered together on the ice.

"Muskox," Julien yells at my ear-protectors over the din of the helicopter's rotors.

Finally, we reach a flat part of the strait and the helicopter lands on the ice. We jump out, and Gauthier helps Stern drill a hole with an ice auger to test its thickness. I briefly think about offering my assistance. But as I recall my one ice fishing experience, I realize that I'd probably be more of a hindrance than help.

The metre-deep ice passes the test, and we hop back into the helicopter, which moves a short distance away and alights close to an interesting feature in the ice.

From the air, it looks as though someone has taken a utility knife and cut a sheet of Styrofoam in half. From the ground, it looks as though two ice sheets collided, then floated apart, and the water between them refroze. Chunks of shattered ice form a jagged ridge on either side of a trench that stretches as far as the eyes can see.

The ice in the trench is only 15 centimetres thick. (Emily Chung)

All four of us jump into the trench, which is about knee deep relative to the ice sheets on either side, and less than an arms length wide. Gautier and I start snapping pictures, while Stern and Julien start drilling with the auger. Within seconds, they yell for us to get out. They themselves spring over the ridges back onto the main ice plates.

It turns out the ice in the trench is only 15 centimetres thick, and Stern and Julien had hit water almost immediately. If the ice were the same thickness everywhere, it would probably support our weight, but the ice could well be thinner in some places. If one of us had broken through the ice, it would have been a disaster. We were all wearing winter clothing with no protection from the icy salt water.

The pilots circle around the ship before coming in for a landing. (Emily Chung/CBC)

We make it safely back to the helicopter, and after one more stop, we fly back to the ship. Julien opens the helicopter door twice to snap pictures – once as we pass the cliffs of Banks Island and again as we do a circle around the ship.

In the end, Stern and Julien decide that the first spot we landed is a suitable place for an ice camp. At the evening science meeting, Stern announces that there could be an ice camp this year after all.