Skidoos & Sunburns

A packed schedule and limited internet made additional updates from Qikiqtarjuaq impossible, so here is the belated overhaul of the nine days on the coast of Baffin Island:

I was picked up at the airport by Eric Brossier of the Vegabond, where we piled numerous cases and bags into his komatiq. Eric’s expeditions are absolutely worth a follow. He and his family have been around the Arctic, and beyond, in a sailboat. The adventures that his two young daughters are having are unimaginable (and they are becoming fluent in Inuktitut in the meantime!). I was then dropped off at the Angnakok’s residence where I was given a cozy room in the home of a respected and truly lovely couple who have lived in the community for decades.

Jay, who helped me get to the ice island and did his fair share of the grunt work once there, and I set out on Saturday for the ice island after one day of figuring out my way around town and prepping all of the equipment and materials that had been shipped and brought with me. We were both set up on our own skidoos (I got the 4-stroke Skandic 900 ‘Cadillac’ – it was a fun ride!), with Jay towing all of the equipment and gear on his own komatiq. Unfortunately, as we made the turn around Broughton Island (on which Qikiqtarjuaq is situated), we met a wall of cloud and snow which left our visibility quite minimal (think white, lots of white). At this point I was much appreciating our ability to turn around, wait an additional day and a half, and try again.

So… Monday morning came and the sun was shining, really shining. We were at the ice island in good time, and looked around for a bit for a proper access point – because somehow we had to get on top! That was the major worry during the planning for the trip – what if there was no natural access point to get on the ice island? Were we ready to climb our way on somehow? Thankfully, there was no need, as Jay was able to find a suitable snowdrift on the southeast face which we were able to motor up. Now, that is fun. (Coming down is too!)

We both were near t-shirt status by the end of the day. First up was the physically-easy modifications to the stationary ice penetrating radar that has been on the ice since last year. Then we went to work, setting out a number of ablation stakes and temperature sensors along a 3.5 km transect that the following day we were planning on towing a mobile ice radar and GPS along. This will give a better representation of the ice thickness surrounding that one point which the stationary system sits over. We also put out a number of fluorescent markers (think of them as our breadcrumb trail), so that a fellow researcher can repeat the thickness transect in July without trouble. This is another instance of the ice island being mobile causing havoc in a normally easy procedure, since following a simple GPS track would allow someone to re-do such a transect in most cases when on terra firma.

There was also a lot more snow than I was used to (as in, normally there is zero). So I also dug a number of snowpits to find the density of the snow layers. It was pretty fun sitting in a 1.5 m hole, identifying the various layers, testing their hardness and then recording their density and temperature. Call it a ‘snow geek out’ moment.

It was time to return home then, and I figured I may as well try and capture some of the glorious drive. I’ve put together all of the footage from my GoPro here.

It covers a few of the back-and-forths to the ice island over the week when it was on a timelapse mode, and also has some actual video footage of the radar being towed on our second day out. That operation went very well, there was still lots of sun (as you’ll notice) and we covered the 3.5 km transect and more with the radar. I was interested in crossing a ‘feature’ which I have been following with satellite imagery of the ice island, since I think this is where the next large fracture is going to occur, and I’m looking for evidence in the sub-surface structure to support this.

The GoPro footage also has some footage from the last field day. This was the day when I tried some new data collection methods, and I quite enjoyed my day as an oceanographer. We drilled 8 holes through the sea ice (approx. 1.25 m) with a large auger so that we could send down two instruments: a conductivity-temperature-depth sensor and a current meter, to collect information on the water column at various locations around the ice island. We found that even though the ice island is grounded at approximately 120 m, this must be a fairly isolated shoal since our casts indicated depths of over 320 m just nearby.

Unfortunately, due in part to user error and in part to instrument quirkiness, some data was not logged by the instruments. I’m certainly remembering the lessons from that, chalking it up to experience gained, and happy that we prioritized our sampling so that the more important data was collected.

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Overall, if you weigh the data which was collected on all 3 days and include the really special connections that I was so fortunate to make with Qikiqtarjuaq community members, the trip’s glass is certainly well more than half full. Hat’s off to Jay, my guide and extra set of hands, for all of his work. There is no way it would have been accomplished without him. He also was continually teaching me while we were out on the ice… I now know how to tell where the sea ice ends by looking at the colour of the clouds, when it’s best to hunt caribou, polar bear and seal, and to always pack an ice chisel!

That will be all from this end for a little while. PII-A-1-f will be visited again, we hope, in July by a fellow researcher, and then I plan to go back with a lab mate in September. But we’ll see what the summer season has in store for our site!



The Dream

This week I’m going to, once and for all, weather and field work gods permitting, substantively revisit a field site. It is something that is written into almost every field research proposal – this lofty goal of accessing an ice island not once, but twice, to assess the changes which took place in the intervening period. Though I’ve gotten close in 2012 and 2013, I have yet to get back in a meaningful way, data-collection wise.

This ice island which I and a local guide intend to snowmobile out to is 40 km from Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut, a town of 520 people on the east coast of Baffin Island. Myself and friends accessed the ice island, coded PII-A-1-f, in October of 2015. We established a field site where we installed an ice penetrating radar to measure ice thickness and small weather station to record the associated environmental conditions. These systems have recorded and transmitted the data daily – so that elusive return trip was not necessary to collect the data (though recouping the instruments someday would be nice!). So I guess today I’m acting a bit like a little kid before bed who keeps asking for one more bedtime story, except this time it’s quite a resource intensive journey out to a huge slab of ice!

At one point this winter the priority task of this trip was to attend to the radar system which had flat-lined around the start of the new year. However, the poor thing just needed some sun rays (like any of us after the winter season), and we were back to receiving our daily ‘radargrams’ a few weeks later.

The rays pouring in. 


This was a very welcomed radargram after a few weeks of radar silence. 

Though I will check in on the radar and weather station, the purpose of this current trip is now to gather supplementary data around the station. We now have a very special, high-frequency data-set of ice island thickness and surface melt, but it’s just providing information at one point on a giant and variable ice surface. Now I have the opportunity to find out how thickness change varies spatially across the ice island by using a mobile radar and installing ablation [melt] stakes over transects stemming from the main field site.

The audacity of this work doesn’t stop here at the second visit to PII-A-1-f. Though this trip is really the second visit to this particular ice island, it’s a bit like the first in regards to the work being done. Now we have to get back again to re-do the transects and re-measure the ablation stakes so that we can determine the thickness change and surface melt over these transects. And we’re not just going for a third visit, but a forth too. These are planned from the trusty CCGS Amundsen in July and September later this year.

But for now, it’ll be a focus on making this trip a successful one. Fellow researchers working on sea ice surveys did a reconnaissance mission to the ice island just a few weeks ago while conducting sea ice surveys. I was relieved to find out that we’d be able to access the ice island with skidoos (and not some creative climbing and equipment hauling).

We hope to get out to the ice island this upcoming Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Be on the lookout for an update after that!

In the meantime… If you’re hungry for some more information on ice islands along the Baffin Island coast, check out this pertinent, preliminary data-set (scroll down a bit on the site) from the Canadian Ice Island Drift, Deterioration and Detection database showing ice island occurrences between Clyde River and Qikiqtarjuaq, NU after the 2010 Petermann Glacier calving event. The Water and Ice Research Lab at Carleton University is currently amassing what will be an outstanding database of ice islands in Canadian waters after major calvings in northwest Greenland and northern Ellesmere Island. (Final note: I take full responsibility for this shameless plug.)

Be well,