When work actually happens!

I think I should say a bit more about what is actually going on up here and why the four of us from Carleton and the University of Manitoba made the trek to this hamlet tucked away in the expanse of the Western Canadian Arctic. I landed this incredible gig where I head to the north for two to four weeks and fly around on helicopters and land on immense icebergs (‘ice islands’). These ice islands are breaking off of ice shelves farther north and drift south along Canada’s coasts. With less sea ice these days (thanks to polar warming which probably also has a hand in the break off of these ice masses to start with), developers are looking to explore for and extract oil and gas offshore farther north as well. Coupling extremely large blocks of ice (100 m thick, 270 sq km in surface area, up to 22.5 billion tonnes before deterioration begins…) and extraction infrastructure would not be a pretty sight. I think I know who’d win. So that’s why resource companies and government departments are interested in getting a handle on how these ice islands move and deteriorate. All this in the hope that they’ll be able to predict where the ice islands will drift so risk assessment and management plans can be developed.

These snippets are a continuation of work I did last October onboard a coast guard icebreaker. That work focused on three ice islands that are currently in the Eastern Canadian Arctic and would be of concern to developers and owners of existing infrastructure off the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland (i.e., Grand Banks).

Right now, after four days of travel, we’ve landed in Sachs Harbour (as the last post describes) to do work on sea ice and continue work I’m involved with on ice islands. This time we’re in the Western Canadian Arctic – which for me is a cool opportunity to compare the drift and deterioration mechanisms, life spans, dimensions, etc. to those now in the east.

We have to keep things exciting though! We were stuck in Inuvik for an extra day as fuel issues were sorted out. I want to say now, that the guys from U of M are top notch and had made sure that fuel was available and would be released to us. This was not the case though. The whole town is rationing fuel now – since fuel only comes in on barge during the summer months when the sea is open. It could be as late as August. We thought everything was handled when the Canadian Wildlife Service said that they would sell their supply of oil to us, a 20 barrels. Wicked! Done. We boarded our little King Beech the next morning (it’s pretty crazy when the pilot climbs right over you to get into the cockpit), passed tree line a few minutes after take-off and were in Sachs by noon. The oil drums were located down at the beach, so we got them up to the airport and again, we’re golden, right? Our helicopters fly in the next day (which is always really cool to say), one pilot gets out and right away says, “That’s all the fuel, right there?” Apparently it was enough to last 2 days of ice surveys and the flight to the mainland. No where near the seven to nine days we were hoping to be out.

Of course it is also the Easter weekend. Issues aren’t going to be resolved right now, that’s for sure. Ah well, just a bummer to make it all the way up here and be cut short. But we do get a couple of days, at least! We did get out on the ice yesterday, and I did get to my main ice island target. Which is what I’ll quickly describe now, since I know you’re probably starting to tire of our fuel shortage woes.

After quite the morning of preparation, we lifted off around 1pm and headed straight off the coast to the west. But first I saw my first, and so far, only wildlife – 2 musk ox  galloping (a little less than gracefully) below me. That was my only personal goal for  the entire trip. Checked off! So – going west it is actually hard to discern where land stops and sea begins, since the land is so flat and the snow drifts act similarly. That’s until you get a while out, where huge lines of rubble fit ice slabs (that sounds too small for what they are) together like a puzzle.

We made four stops on multi-year ice floes (ice that hasn’t melted over previous summers) to deploy beacons for the U of M team. We had fun with big augers, drilling holes about a meter into the ice for the beacons to be placed in. And on the way home, how convenient, was my ice island! I was surprised at how different it was from the ones I worked on in October. The sea ice came all the way up it’s top surface, so it would be hard to notice it was any different from its surroundings if we had not had satellite imagery to show us the differences. This ice island came from the Markham Ice Shelf/Glacier on Northwestern Ellesmere Island, and was actually ‘dirty’ –you could tell that it had at one point been land ice. Super cool.

So the beacon got out, stake was drilled into the ice to attach/measure surface melt – if we do get back to the ice island in the coming years. Even readng off of th gound penetrating radar (see previous entries for user woes).

It was a gorgeous day. A sunscreen and sunglasses kind of day. Which also allows for temperatures to plummet. Exposed skin doesn’t go through stages of being cold. All of a sudden whatever it was covering (fingers, I noticed) just stop working. But looking around you and not seeing a single soul, or even a bump on the horizon, is a really incredible experience and makes dealing with little chilled digits well worth it.

After a really productive afternoon, we boarded back into our choppers and headed backto the ‘bustling’ Sachs Harbour airport. It’s amazing! You can just walk into the airport ‘terminal’ – totally unlocked, no one there. Security isn’t really an issue here.

On the way home though, I had to keep pinching myself every once in a while. You start to get complacent/used to seeing ice in every direction with a beautifully gleaming sun starting to dip on the horizon – but you want to always appreciate it because we certainly won’t have endless opportunities for the experience. Plus we’re lucky to even see it once! I hope the pictures I get up eventually will do it justice.


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