Catching the rays

Two weeks and a number of experiences later…

We are all amazed that we have been on Svalbard for close to a month. Since the last entry we’ve been vaulted through a week each of lectures on glacial dynamics and remote-sensing techniques and taken excursions to two local glaciers to test equipment and learn of their unique histories.

View into town from Longyearbyen

View into town from the glacier Longyearbyen 

Ice penetrating radar – which must have come up in a previous entry – is used for glacial profiling and we took a half-day excursion to the local glacier, Longyearbyen, to test out the university’s equipment. When we use radar for ice islands we are mostly concerned about determining their thickness. This is true for glaciologists as well, however, they also tend to experiment with their antenna frequency to hone-in on stratification within the ice. This can give hints to the locations of boundaries between cold and temperate ice, debris layers and melt water channels or englacial lakes. Detecting these features is useful in constructing a theory on the glacier’s past, and possibly it’s future. The university has sourced some amazing equipment for this. Their radar uses fiber optic connections and is tough enough to withstand snowmobile speeds. Plans are brewing to improve the slow towing of two sets of skis on the ice islands!

The radar set up

The radar set up

A small group revisited the glacier over the weekend for a relaxed ski on a beautiful day. I was impressed at the Fischers, as well as my shins, for holding up well on the descent!

Mine relics

Mine relics

Starting off

Starting off

The place to be!

The place to be!

Svalbard Selfie

Svalbard Selfie

Coming down

Coming down

The 'toothpick' skis

The ‘toothpick’ skis

I spent the last week learning about various techniques to detect changes in the cryosphere (glaciers, sea ice, ice shelves, ice sheets, etc.) with spaceborne sensors. I’m hoping to determine a way to detect the change in an ice island’s thickness with satellite collected data, so this week was especially pertinent for what’s to come with the research to be conducted back in Ottawa.

We did get to venture out on a stunning day to Tunabreen, a glacier ending at the water (now covered with sea ice). It was a good 2 hour skidoo ride out along two fjords and we were graced with the presence of caribou, at least 1 seal, and sun beams (!!!). Tunabreen is a glacier that has been slowly retreating – which evidence seen in the local seabed from its annual push mounds (due to slight advancements before further retreat). It calves regularly when the ocean warms over the summer, but we also saw some fresh rubble from a recent calving.

Tan anyone?

Tan anyone?





The wall

The wall


The sun is set to shine on Longyearbyen proper tomorrow – given that the clouds cooperate. We are set to go to a little festival to greet it tomorrow. That, on top of a trip to another ice cave today in yet another local glacier more-or-less out my backdoor, makes for a solid weekend!

Enjoy your own weekends, wherever you find yourself!

Down we go!

Down we go!


Hello from 78°N – the northernmost blog post so far.  Here in Svalbard is the northernmost everything: chocolatier, swimming pool, university… The latter is why I’m up here and get to write about a non-traditional field work experience. Longyearbyen – the town on Svalbard (a Norwegian archipelago UP there) which I’m in – hosts the University of Svalbard where a few hundred students at a time take practical Arctic science, technology and logistics courses. It is a gorgeous facility. Everything here is gorgeous. The buildings, the scenery, a hot cup of tea after your chilly walk home at night…


The university straight ahead, complete with a picturesque backdrop.

We’re a week and a half into our glaciology course, though I left home two weeks ago due to a loooong 36 hr journey over here. It may take a full day and a half, but a round trip flight can be one third of the price of flying to a town in the central Canadian Arctic (that still gets me). The first few days were filled with our practical trainings – including how to properly balance a sledge when loading up for a snowmobile trek, how to drive said snowmobile (both up and perpendicular to slopes – that was fun!), how to properly take care of someone in the event of hypothermia and how to shoot rifles and flare guns in case of a close polar bear encounter. We think that the trembles caused by the chill may have been useful for mimicking the shakes we’d certainly have if that encounter was to ever happen!


Logistics warehouse, minus the 28 brand new ‘snowscooters’ (makes them sound so quaint!)

That weekend was more than exciting as we were hit with a full gale on Sunday. The kilometer trek to the gym was a workout in itself for the three brave, dedicated soles who ventured there. Unfortunately the front brought in a bout of warm weather, including rain. This re-configured the town into a skating rink, which was fun only for those who could still efficiently make the 30 minute walk uphill to our hostel barracks.


The barracks

Our first week of class was dedicated to studying the mass balance of glaciers. Think of it as studying your bank account: you put a certain amount away each month but your balance is also possibly affected by taxes, fees, interest and your own withdrawals. A negative or positive balance down the road depends on all of these things.

Between a few days of lectures we squeezed in a day trip to a local glacier. It’s amazing to have such experiential learning less than a 45 minute snowmobile away (and that isn’t near to the closest glacier to town). We were on Scott Turnerbreen (breen = glacier), therefore Scott Turner must have been a real high-ranking coal miner back in the day to warrant having a glacier named after him. We dug our snowpits, figured out what recent weather events would have effected certain snow layers (post gale rain = ice, again), and explored an ice cave 15 m under the surface which is a melt water stream with the roof closed over. Really cool!


Scott Turnerbreen and region


Heading down into the ice cave


Looking up


Serious icicles

What was REALLY cool, or downright frosty, was a group hike yesterday up a mountain on the edge of town. The local reindeer were just fine on the plateau up top. I’m pretty sure our hike from yesterday is just a neighborhood stroll for the locals as well. The enthusiasm for all things Arctic, and active, is invigorating here. And I count myself lucky for having three more weeks to explore it!


A full 360 of the crew. Photo: V. Goel


Up on the plateau. The sticks are us. Photo: B. Lecavalier


Photo: B. Lecavalier


Some big, fresh tracks.. Photo: B. Lecavalier


Photo: B. Lecavalier

Stay warm everyone!

“We Nailed It”! Faith in field work, restored.


I am almost drawing a blank on how to start this. It has been over two years since an ice island field season has been successful, but as of Tuesday, 5 August 2014, we know that field operations on drifting masses of glacial ice is still possible!

The story should really start with a flashback to Sunday dinner a week and half ago, right after our first miss of this trip. It was jokingly put out there that the chief scientist was going to start whispering, “ice island, ice island” over the loudspeaker just to make me have small panic attacks and jump to get ready. The reality was not far off, as Tuesday morning I was awoken by the man himself, telling me to get my sleepy self to the wheelhouse ASAP to ‘come have a look’ at what was in front of us. Yup, there was an ice island, in all of its glory, that we didn’t know had drifted so far north due to our internet outages. We had still been planning on making our way back to the Greenland piece (things had been smoothed over internationally), but there is no way that we could pass up the weather that was presented to us. Bluebird skies, just a little wind, and zero fog. It was sunscreen-worthy conditions and we jumped to it.

Jonathan and Jean-Sebastian were trooper volunteers. They had already gone through the yes-no-maybe situations of the field ops over the past weeks. Both had also worked on their own projects well into the night and were expected to again the next night. But there was no hesitation to come and trek across the ice mass with me for the day.

Nine hours on the ice, another hour with the helicopter for photo work, and that was that! I could not be happier with what we accomplished on the ice. Timing estimates were exactly on target and all items on my list were miraculously checked off. High-precision GPS units recorded the ice island’s drift while we were on the ice, two tracking beacons were deployed to monitor drift after we left, a 1.5 km+ line of ice thickness and elevation data was collected with the radar system and another GPS, 13 melt stakes and 6 temperature loggers were installed over 500 and 200 m transects, and a camera was set up to monitor 1 set of melt stakes over time. To finish off with some excellent helicopter photo work was icing on the cake.

The most noteworthy accomplishment was the radar line. The surface was characterized by some serious ridges (easy for the system to navigate over on its two sets of xc skis) and troughs (not so easy). Melt ponds were splashed through and the skies seemed to target cryoconite holes (caused by sediment which melts into the ice due to low albedo and high solar energy retention).

In addition, samples were brought back for ‘the water people’ on board. The ship also conducted its rounds of science work – which included the collection of a serious photo-set of freeboard pictures, sonar mapping of the keel, and water sampling from both the zodiac and the ship for a variety of interests like carbon and sulphur fluxes and nutrient upwelling.

And that is that! The relief became greater and greater with each piece of equipment that worked. The smiles on everyone’s faces when we returned, including our own, is something to remember. The crew on board this year is fantastic, which is worth acknowledging again if I hadn’t before. The chief scientist, the captain and officers, the helicopter pilot, ship crew and other researchers are all included in this. The feeling was topped off when I came back from the photo work and my two on-ice team mates had waited for me before going to dinner, because that was a team activity too. I was even told it was ok to shower first (necessary after walking around in the sun in plastic floatation suits and pdfs for the day).

We are now transiting through the Northwest Passage, slowly and noisily. There is some serious sea-ice packed in here, which wasn’t helped by high winds from the east yesterday. We actually came into the passage in a gale warning. The winds made it impossible to do one last beacon deployment, but after Tuesday, I am not complaining about it!

What now? We have a week left to finish off the ship’s scheduled science and to make it to Kugluktuk, Nunavut. Apparently the ice conditions may change that departure point, but we’ll wait and see. As for field work – there are already rumblings about if and when we are going to hunt down this same piece as was worked on  this Tuesday, which I have named PII-K to mess a bit with the standard naming structure and to represent the Kane Basin where it was located. Now that we have the ‘taste of success’ we want to start planning for more!

I plan on writing one last entry – maybe a photo entry – on the other science ops on board. Everyone works incredibly hard and deserves recognition, and the variety of research is pretty interesting!

Rock on. And enjoy the pictures…

Out for a radar walk (p.s. the ice island was 150+ m thick!).

Out for a radar walk (p.s. the ice island was 150+ m thick!).

Science! GPS, beacons, melt stakes and temperature sensors.

Science! GPS, beacons, melt stakes and temperature sensors.

Our ice island, PII-K, with the Amundsen nudged up beside.

Our ice island, PII-K, with the Amundsen nudged up beside.

Taking it all in while waiting for our pick-up.

Taking it all in while waiting for our pick-up.

Hello ice, Hello Greenland

** Note, the following was written on Saturday, 2 August. We out-ran the internet providing satellites shortly after. **

Well, today’s edition of the ice chase will likely be described as comical after a few more hours have passed and the team regains its composure after the fresh hit of this morning.

We packed up last night in anticipation of being at our new ice island target (Petermann Ice Island-A-1-c), now in the Nares Strait between Canada and Greenland, at 9 am this morning. There was going to have to be a miracle change in weather for the helicopter to operate this morning, as we had been socked in with fog for the past week. Someone’s prayers worked, because I looked out my port-hole this morning, and after not too much neck craning, was able to spot a patch of sky! Incroyable!

The ship and science crews were rocking. The teamwork between the ship’s crew, the on-ice team, other scientists and the ‘decision makers’ is fantastic this year. There are others on board who are interested in samples from the ice island, as well as testing the surrounding waters and underwater mapping. It is great to have the whole ship involved because the boat is no longer idling just for you and everyone can benefit.

With everyone on-board readying for their own sampling, the on-ice team (The Ice Pac – our new team name!), left with the helicopter so that we could get a head start on work, as well as beat the rain that was following us.

The Canadian Ice Service has been a huge help, as they are every year, by providing me with the latest coordinates of these ice islands from the daily satellite imagery which they receive. I got the latest position about 20 minutes before take-off. This is important because the island had drifted east (not the way we would’ve liked!) since 31 July and when we were in the air we realized that it had moved suspiciously close to Greenland. Bright skies, light winds, no fog, warm working conditions… I thought that we were set! You can imagine the shock when we get the radio call that the ice island was within 12 miles of the Greenland shore and we were therefore unable to land as the ship does not have permits to operate in Greenland waters. Bam! That was it.

The good news is that we did some great photo work by flying at set altitudes and flight patterns. paths. Like the photo work we did on Saturday, this can lead to some 3D modeling (photogrammetry), and is one positive to take away from today.

We’re currently headed to our northernmost point for the cruise. It won’t be as high as we had hoped, as the ice bridge between Ellesmere Island (Canada) and Greenland is breaking apart and making navigation tricky. The ice flushing out of this region after the break may be chasing us soon enough!

So we will turn a 180 at that point and come back down, and hopefully there is still some sun and the perfect winds, pushing this morning’s target just a pinch west…

Over and out!


The scenery is always worth the flight

So close to PII-A-1-c!

Ice Island Ops 2014

Greetings from Greenland!

We are the red box


I am happy to be reporting from the CCGS Amundsen during the 2014 ArcticNet science cruise. The Amundsen set-off from Quebec City in early July and before the first personnel rotation in Resolute Bay, Nunavut, the crew conducted underwater exploration activities with a remotely-operated vehicle, participated in a joint campaign with the Polar 6, a German aircraft which collected data on the ship’s emissions, and also did multiple days of melt-pond sampling on sea-ice within the Northwest Passage. All of that before the crew and officers were bombarded with requests to visit a chunk of fresh-water ice floating in Baffin Bay starting on the evening on July 24.


Cruise track of the CCGS Amundsen: Leg 1a (purple line), 8 July (Quebec City, red star) to 24 July (Resolute, purple star) and Leg 1b from the 24th through 14 August (Kugluktuk, NU, blue star) by way of an ice island (green star) and Greenland.

With that, another field campaign adventure started! It may be said that it started a few days earlier with some adventures getting from Ottawa to Iqaluit to Resolute and onto the ship. I can say that fog plagues the east coast of the Arctic and doesn’t just screw with helicopter flights but with large fixed wing scheduled flights as well. We, the 19 scientists en route to the ship, did get to spend a nice evening in the Polar Continental Shelf Project’s base. Resolute is a bit of a hub for research activity in the Arctic and the base is impressively equipped with what seems like any equipment or vehicle necessary to make research possible in any corner of the Canadian Arctic.

Fog delayed the crew change from the Amundsen the next morning, so we were able to take part in the town’s ‘Community Day’, where the town’s residents and visiting scientists mingle during fun presentations and activities. Later that evening we were on board and the ship started breaking ice that had set in heavily in parts of the Northwest Passage. Preparations for ice island work started in earnest, as the ice island target was only 30 hours away. I had been following the drift of PII-A-1-f, an ice island that had been a part of the larger calving event from the Petermann Glacier in 2012. Still sizeable at 35 sq km, this ice island was the most likely to survive for a long period and allow us to revisit it next summer. This would allow me to assess deterioration over that period of time and is my ultimate goal with this work. Another benefit of PII-A-1-f was that it was located perfectly in-line with the Amundsen’s cruise track so we would not have to go off-course for even a minute.

I can keep this story short, since I have already reported sob stories from 2012 and 2013. I hope that 2014 does not end up the same way, but our first attempt was indeed thwarted by a number of conditions that led to the helicopter being unable to land on the ice and leave three scientists there for many hours. Fog was rolling in from the distance, the sea was in such a calm state that it reflected the overcast sky perfectly and resulted in no distinction between the two, and the ice actually creating its own fog layer that hovered due to the zero wind in the area. Maybe I should be used to it by now, and I think I am to a point, but it is still a gut-punch to prepare so intensely and be left staring at the ice. ‘So close yet so far’ is the typical thing to write in this case.


The fog layer. I thought that our team could look like rock stars at a concert out there with our own fog machine.


While waiting for the final decision to be made, we did do a full circumnavigation of the ice island to use the Amundsen’s sonar equipment in an attempt to map the underwater sidewalls of the ice island. It took 2 hrs and 40 min to transit around the entire perimeter. One of my objectives this year is to take a series of aerial photos with a digital camera for the creation of a 3D model of the ice island. Though I didn’t do the aerial work, I did get an excellent dataset of 1900 photos of the entire perimeter’s above-water sidewalls (1 image every 5 seconds for ~ 3 hours…, plus some). Hopefully these can be matched up with the underwater sonar mapping I mentioned, and one project can be started from the few hours spent at the site. 

What fun lives in an under-ice cave?

We had to start steaming away, east towards Greenland, to keep the ship on schedule and not waste time for possible future opportunities for ice island field work. We are still early in the cruise (we have another two weeks) and both the science and ship crews assure me that there is lots of time and effort left to make this field season worth all that prep!


One of the more picturesque of the 1900 images that I have now looked through!

Also, I’ve decided that if I’m ever down about the way things are going, that I need to remember that there is still time, and that things are good if you are fortunate enough to wear a jacket in July!

Remembering 2013.

I realize and apologize for writing so scantly on the research trip of last summer. The events of that trip alone were impossible to keep up with, and the same can be said for each passing week since we disembarked the CCGS Amundsen in Pond Inlet, Nunavut in August.

That summer excursion was exciting yet stressful at times with our ice island sampling ultimately foiled by persistent bad weather (fog) and persistent wildlife (polar bears).  That one sentence does not do the three week trip justice, but for the purposes of this entry, is all that is necessary to wrap that chapter up before moving on to the ultimately more important fall of 2013.

Those that are involved with Arctic research or listen to the CBC – and know the work that our lab is involved with – already know of the events that unfolded in the Western Canadian Arctic in September. I have meant to write about it here, at least to give all those involved in the accident their due acknowledgement, for a long time. On a peaceful ski along a favourite trail this morning after a thoughtful drive through my perfectly lit Adirondack Mountains yesterday, it was decided that this refection on 2013 was necessary before turning the calendar over to a yet unwritten 2014.

Members of ArcticNet, including those that carry out their work from the Amundsen year after year, were rocked in early September when an accident with the ship’s helicopter took three respected, expert and kind men away from us. They were each at the top of their field and though the emotion of those on board at that time, their close colleagues and friends, and so importantly their families, is unimaginable, I want to attempt to show condolence and state how it deeply touched us all, right across the country.

It is certain that they will be remembered, for this widely spread community has evolved into a supportive and tightly-woven network of researchers and friends who will make sure of it. I personally owe thanks to this group, as well as to amazingly understanding friends and family for their care over the past few months.

Natural, industrial and political events of global importance are currently playing out in the Arctic. The continuation of the research carried out on the Amundsen, as well as elsewhere in the region, is incredibly important as these unfold. 2014 will undoubtedly be a significant year in the region. 

For tonight, while reflecting on our own years and ringing in the new, let’s raise a glass to our three friends and this community. Take care.



Back on the boat!


After a year in dry-dock, the CCGS Amundsen is once again steaming north to the Canadian Arctic for its annual Scientific Research Cruise. Everyone, scientists and crew, are excited to get back to work since last year`s trip was cancelled due to majorly needed engine repairs. It’s all systems go now and we’re humming along on a smooth ride with our 4 shinning new engines.

I am here with a new graduate student, Melissa, to re-instate our lab’s ice island field work. I realize that I feel much more comfortable and calm this time on board as I have the routine down and know the ins and outs of the ship. It is also fun for me to have Melissa around, since it is her first trip to the Arctic; she is extra excited and brings great energy.

We will only be visiting one ice island on this two and a half week trip, before getting off in Pond Inlet, a small town at the northern reaches of Baffin Island. There will be a small rotation of scientists then – Melissa and I will disembark with a few others and a new group will come on board and head even further north and into Greenland waters. The scientists on that leg, many from the University of Manitoba, will be modern scientific storm chasers – looking for a storm at the start of the perennial sea ice cover so that they can send instruments out to measure different processes occurring before, during and after the storm.

This ‘leg’ that Melissa and I are on from Quebec City to Pond Inlet has its own fun and perhaps not as nerve-racking missions. We are doing intensive sampling starting this evening in two fjords along the Labrador Coast. Sam Fjord, I am told, is incredible with its 5000 ft cliffs vertical on either side of you. After the fjords we will be stopping in Pangnirtung, another small town but on the southern portion of Baffin Island, to bring on board two specialized ROV (remotely operated vehicle) drivers. They are going to deploy a massive cube of a robot through the ‘moon pool’ in the center of the ship and look for deep sea, cold water corals in the middle of Baffin Bay. This won’t be until early next week. THEN we will get more serious about choosing the ice island that we will target as our field site. There are many between 5-10 sq km along the Baffin Island coast, some from the 2010 break of the Petermann Glacier, which we visited back in 2011 (see way earlier posts). There are also pieces from the 2012 Petermann Glacier break-off event, and at least one ice island produced by the Ryder Glacier – the neighbor of the Petermann Glacier in Northwestern Greenland.

For now, Melissa and I will prep our equipment and plan as best we can for the big day. That can be another post as well. Right now we are all excited to get to the first real stations in the fjord – those will be the first tests of the other scientists’ equipment and procedures. I must say that the ice island work may be stressful because the nature of it being a one shot deal (only one ice island, limited time, no mess-ups!), but I will never have to sample water or take a core from the ocean floor at 2 am. For now I can simply enjoy waking up to ever increasing amounts of sunshine and a new, beautiful backdrop of scenery every morning.

FYI – this post is long over due and a bit late because of weak internet connections. There is more to share and will come in the next few days. Hopefully pictures too!