The Big Melt

The Arctic is going through an unprecedented climate change - a big melt of the ice landscape that occupies such a large part of our territory, our definition, and our imagination. Join The National on a voyage of discovery to see how the communities, the culture, and the natural environment of the north are transforming and adapting, and meet the people who are studying this crucial moment in our country's history.

Sasa Petricic's Field Notes

September 24, 2007

It seems kind of crazy.

There I was, standing on a chunk of ice in the middle of Norwegian Bay… a modest corner of the Arctic Ocean, far closer to the North Pole than to the US border. Think about it. In relative terms, this floe covered a much, much smaller part of the bay than say, an ice cube would in your favourite drinking glass. Its highest point was a few metres above sea level, it was covered with cracks and "ponds" that opened onto the ocean below, and it was moving AND melting. How hard would it be to fall into the minus two-degree seawater?

Oh, and did I mention that there was a team of people with me who were determined to hack the floe apart? They were using hand saws and powertools on our little ice raft.

It does, however, have a subtle kind of beauty that’s hard to imagine and just as hard to accurately capture on video. Everything is either white or blue. And the blue comes in a million different tones, some of which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.

Five of us were dropped here by a Coast Guard helicopter from the Henry Larsen, a mid-sized icebreaker in the Coast Guard’s fleet. The science team was led by Michelle Johnston, a hydraulogist with the National Research Council. She casually mentioned that one of the ways she chooses which floe to use is to consider the odds of it falling apart at some point during the visit. Good thing.

Other precautions included a rifle in case of polar bears, and a radio to contact the ship, which was often out of sight. The radio did not always work, though… and there was no satellite phone in case of emergency. I also didn’t see any life rafts.

The team’s mission was to figure out how much of a threat floes like this one will pose to any ships that start using the Northwest Passage. It’s true that there’s a lot less ice in the passage, but a single collision with a floe like this could cause massive damage. Even icebreakers like the Larsen would rather go around it.

The irony is that because there IS less ice overall in the Canadian arctic, the really serious stuff – hard multi-year ice like this – has a clear fast-lane south. None of that grid-lock caused by pileups of thinner, annual ice. And when it does arrive, it’s bigger and harder, having spent less time melting en route.

Trouble is, scientists know very little about the threat… and even in this era of remote sensing by satellite, there is really no way of monitoring the ice as closely than to climb aboard. Thickness is determined by drilling many holes and pulling out the tape measure. Ice temperature is determined by drilling a hole and sticking in a thermometer. Other tests required cutting slices of the floe with basic hand tools.

What the science team found was that the ice on this floe was thicker, stronger and colder than imagined… confirming the observations about northern ice drifting more easily south.

Perhaps that should have made me feel better about drifting around one of the most isolated parts of the world on an over-sized ice cube.

Darrow MacIntyre's Field Notes

September 25, 2007

In Nachvak fjord in northern Labrador, there was some debate among the scientists on the Amundsen about how old the rocks in front of us were. These were not run-of-the-mill rocks, but one breathtakingly sheer cliff, a wall of  stone that seemed to stretch for miles up and down the fjord. To see the jagged, tooth-edged ridge at the top, we had to tilt our heads all the way back and shade our eyes against the sun.   The size was humbling.  It was sobering to hear scientists discuss the rock’s age ... somewhere between one point five and three BILLION years old.

It’s hard to wrap your head around numbers like that. But you start to grasp the vastness of it if you try to imagine the individual sunsets and sunrises that came and went over this cliff while the forces of nature scoured and shaped it.  Ice-ages covered it in snow.  Volcanic activity buried it in earth. Glaciers scraped it clean and gouged it. All this happened over and over, the sun rising and setting trillions of times before the first human eyes ever looked into the valley. 

It puts the human place on this planet in perspective.  As a species we’ve been here roughly two hundred thousand years.  The blink of the an eye by comparison. Even homo sapiens' earliest ancestors only dropped from the trees and started walking about one and a half MILLION years ago. Still just a drop in the geological bucket.  Even reaching back though the millennia, to the cretaceous period, when some cataclysmic event wiped out almost all life on earth, these rocks were more than a billion years old. 

Standing there aboard the Amundsen on that sunny August afternoon, the 300 foot ship that had seemed so huge that morning suddenly felt insignificant.  The brief life of one human, a laughable hundred years if we’re lucky, felt even more insignificant.  Even the great cataclysms that we, as a species, fear most ... global warming, nuclear holocaust, lethal pandemics ... seem like a hiccup.

Regardless of what happens with our planet’s carbon levels and atmospheric temperatures, no matter how fast arctic ice melts,  those rocks will still be here.  So will the ocean, for millions more years to come.  So will animals and plants in some form. 

We all know it theoretically,  but what came home to me like a tonne of pre-cambrian rocks that afternoon was the fact that our scramble to "save the planet" is really a scramble to save ourselves. The planet, as the Amundsen’s chief scientist, Dave Barber, told me, will be fine.  Something wiped out dinosaurs and untold other life forms 65 million years ago, but the earth carried on, and a whole new order of plants and animals evolved to replace those that were extinct ... scientists call it regime change. 

Many think regime change is underway again.  The question people everywhere have to ask themselves  is, do we intend to be part of the new order?  If so, it seems certain we’ll have to change the way we live on this planet.