Arctic journal: Aboard the Amundsen

Emily Chung, the CBC.ca's regional journalist for Ottawa, is spending seven days on the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Amundsen, a scientific research icebreaker in the Beaufort Sea. She is one of 15 journalists from around the world selected and sponsored by the World Federation of Science Journalists to report on the ship's study. The $40-million project is examining the circumpolar flaw lead system — areas of open water in the ice —
which is expected to show how the Arctic might change as the global climate grows warmer.

March 5: A mild day in Inuvik

The Boeing 737 lands in Inuvik, NT, a couple of degrees north of the Arctic Circle, at 11:40 a.m. after passing over a spectacular snowy landscape of serpentine rivers, crinkled rocky ridges and stark white lakes, with a dark stubble of trees in between.

As I disembark, I'm surprised to find it is far milder than it's been in Ottawa for much of the winter — 12 degrees below zero, sunny, and dry, with barely any wind. I know temperatures on a single day are no indication of the overall climate, but my thoughts naturally turn to the research I am on my way to observe.

Many people who live or work here say the weather today is unseasonably mild. My taxi driver, who has lived in Inuvik for 30 years, said overall the winters seem to be getting warmer. He remembers when winter temperatures would dip down to -60 C, but that hasn't happened lately.

Inuvik is a town built for a cold climate, and a change in the climate could alter life there considerably.

Buildings in the community are built raised above the ground so they don't melt the permafrost when they are heated and cause the foundations to shift. Above-ground large metal ducts called utilidors connect buildings around town, housing pipes and wiring that are buried underground in towns that don't need to deal with permafrost.

The town's famous igloo-shaped Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church is built as a shell within a shell. Father Matthew Ihuoma, the church's Nigerian-born priest, gives a tour on Wednesday afternoon, outlining the church's architectural adaptations to the climate. He explains how the unheated space between the two shells channels warm air from the inner shell upward, away from the permafrost, insulating the outer shell and the ground below from the warmth.

Inuvik's famous igloo-shaped church was built as a shell within a shell. (Emily Chung/CBC)

Inuvik is also a town built on the oil and gas industry — a major producer of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane which are believed to be a major factor causing global temperatures to rise. Throughout the day, workers wearing industrial protective clothing with reflective striping clomp in heavy boots about the hotel, on their way to and from rigs on the frozen sea.

Tomorrow, I will be heading out to sea myself, to see what questions researchers on board the Amundsen, a former Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker, are asking about the future of the Arctic, and how they are working to answer those questions.

March 6: Wind, snow and polar bears vs. science

The weather changes suddenly overnight. On Thursday morning, the wind is yanking violently at flags, snow is flying horizontally, washing out everything behind it, and the temperature has dropped below -20 C.

As I prepare to head to the airport to catch my 2 p.m. flight, I run into Yoko, whose trip to the rig is delayed, as the ice road leading to it has been closed due to poor visibility.

I also run into Gautier DeBlonde, a freelance photojournalist on assignment for the Guardian in London who will also be going to the Amundsen.

We share a cab at the airport, which we find has been taken over by a group of seven high school kids and their teachers, whose luggage and giant red parkas are strewn all over. They are to spend a week on the Amundsen as part of the Schools on Board outreach program.

They have been at the airport since 8 a.m., since conditions made it impossible to fly out on their scheduled 9 a.m. flight. We are told we might have to spend another night in Inuvik.

Fortunately, an hour later, the weather clears up, and it is decided that two Twin Otter planes will fly out at the same time.

Once we are in the air, I look out the window at the Beaufort Sea. Below are large, white plates of ice with long, jagged dark cracks running through them. This makes me a little nervous, since I know we will be landing on the ice. But two hours later we alight safely on a runway marked with two long rows of garbage bags.

A group of Coast Guard crew in blue uniforms are waiting with snowmobiles and a tractor to take us to the ship, which appears to be firmly embedded in a large ice floe. We walk up a metal gangplank and descend inside.
After dinner, we are welcomed by chief scientist Gary Stern.

CBCNews.ca reporter Emily Chung in front of the Amundsen icebreaker. (CBC)

He tells us that he heard about our flight delay, and it's something that almost everyone one board the ship has experienced.

Arctic research is like that, he said: It involves a lot of waiting for nature to cooperate.

Stern introduces us to the scientists on board, who each tell us about their research. Some are studying organisms such as bacteria, phytoplankton and zooplankton. Others are studying the way gases such as ozone and carbon dioxide moves between the ice and the atmosphere, while still others are studying levels of contaminants in the ice itself.

Stern allows us to leave the meeting early and head out on a mandatory safety tour of the ship, but just before that, he issues one more warning about the challenges that nature throws at arctic researchers.

There are polar bears out on the ice, he said, and we must never, ever leave the ship without being accompanied by someone carrying a gun.

A note to CBC.ca readers:

I should warn you that our internet service here is temperamental. The ship is currently embedded in an ice floe that moves in ways we can't control. When it is oriented a certain way, part of the ship block the satellite signal that we rely on for internet service. So I hope to be in touch daily, but if you don't hear from me for a day or two, it probably means our internet service is down. - Emily