North·Photos

Arctic underwater observatory in Cambridge Bay gets bigger and better

Researchers with University of Victoria’s Ocean Networks Canada are back in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, making the community’s mini-underwater observatory — an eye on the sea floor — bigger and better.

University of Victoria researchers add more sensors to platform off Nunavut's coast

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      Researchers with University of Victoria's Ocean Networks Canada are back in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, making the community's underwater mini-observatory bigger and better.

      "By the end of this trip it will have three times as many instruments on it than the first version," says project engineer Ryan Flagg, who helped install the platform in 2012 on the sea floor, six metres below the surface about 40 metres offshore.

      The platform is designed to collect data in real time, creating a baseline of information that will help scientists understand how the ocean and ice floes are changing as the planet warms.

      "It was very much an experiment for us to be able to go up to the North," says Flagg.

      The first version started off with just an underwater camera, an ice profiler to measure sea ice, and instruments that measure salinity, water temperature and depth. The team has since added an underwater microphone, a fish tag receiver, and a sunlight sensor.

      The mini-observatory is modeled after Neptune and Venus, Ocean Networks' "world-leading" cable underwater observatories off the coast of British Columbia.

      Like its larger cousins, the observatory collects data in real time, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

      Linked by a cable to the community's wharf, the Cambridge Bay observatory's data are transmitted to the local high school via wireless internet and uploaded online for students and scientists around the world to see.

      5 to 8 dives to get it right

      This year the team will make five to eight dives to recover hardware and shoot video. The team will install a "whole suite of instruments" including sensors that can calculate levels of carbon dioxide, nitrates and pH levels, many of which have never been used in the Canadian Arctic.

      "Some of them are trial; some of them are new developments for industry so I think they want to know just how well they perform, and how well they perform in the Arctic conditions and cold water," says Flagg.

      It's not just scientists and innovators who are interested in the project. The team also engages with students, such as 14-year-old Katelyn Wilson, who learned how hydrophones (underwater microphones) work last summer.

      "They put it into a tub of water and made noises and it showed up onto the screen as noise levels. I thought it was cool. [It] kind of inspired me to be one of those scientists."

      Once the retrofit is complete, the team will submerge the platform again, this time 150 metres offshore. Ocean Networks Canada is looking at doing a similar project in Churchill, Man., in order to make comparisons between the two communities.

      That has some scientists excited, Flagg says. 

      "The scientists get more and more excited the longer we keep instruments in the water because they can really start to write scientific papers and start to hopefully predict what is going to happen next by having that longer time series."

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