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Polar Science Adventures with Anna Pienkowski

Monday, September 19, 2016

Life on board (a guest post)

Today we have a guest post by Craig Neilson, a MacEwan student in the Department of Physical Sciences. Craig was onboard the CCGS Amundsen for about 3 weeks, leaving the ship last weekend during the most recent science rotation. During the 2016-2017 academic year, Craig is conducting research on the distribution of sea ice biomarkers (chemical fossils) in the sediments of the Canadian Arctic, supervised by myself and colleagues Sam Mugo and Mark Furze, for a CHEM-498 Independent Research course. For this course, Craig got the opportunity to collect the samples for his research project onboard the CCGS Amundsen, thanks to funding by ArcticNet and NSERC.

Craig and I getting ready to board the helicopter for the CCGS Amundsen.

For starters, the Amundsen is a very busy ship with operations running nearly 24/7. The ship moves from station to station where various samples are taken from the different scientific teams onboard. Our primary interest were core samples from the ocean floor, including both box cores and piston cores, along with surface sediment samples. As the ship cruises from location to location there can be considerable down time, sometimes more than a day in between core samples, but life continues on the Amundsen, albeit a little different from life at home.

Taking Core Samples 

Because the ship's operations run 24/7, our core samples are taken at all times of the day and night. Luckily Piston cores are restrained to daylight as its operation requires more crew and daylight for extra safety, but box cores were scheduled at various hours where ever it fit best in the schedule. Unfortunately, because time needs to be used efficiently and quickly so the ship can move to the next location, box cores were one of those things that usually got scheduled when it's dark as to not take away from operations that require daylight. So many of the box cores were done either late at night or really early in the morning. In addition to having to be up in the middle of the night, the schedule was always subject to change as some operations would be canceled and others taking longer than expected. So a box core may be scheduled for 11pm, but may not actually start until 1am. Or be scheduled for 2am, but get bumped up to midnight; meaning that nap you thought you could take until 1:30am isn't going to be that realistic. Piston cores on the other hand are conveniently scheduled during daylight hours, but can take significantly longer than a box core, meaning you have to be up on deck in the freezing wind for that much longer. But generally things go pretty smoothly and you can get back inside and warm up with a cup of hot chocolate.

Box coring - at once during the day and in sunshine!

In the Cabin

The cabins we get are decently sized (considering we are on a ship) with bunk beds for two, desk area and chairs for two, two closets, and a sink. The bunk beds have curtains on them to give you a little privacy if you are worried your roommate might watch you sleep. I had the top bunk, and with the curtains closed it mainly just felt like I was in a fort. Probably one of the most annoying things on the ship though was this constant “ping” noise that goes off at a constant interval (approx. every second). You can't hear it on the upper floor, but I swear it was going off right beside my head it was so loud. The good thing is that after awhile you kind of get accustomed to it and you forget it's there, but then you wonder if it was actually just turned off and you “try” to listen for it; then it comes back to you louder than ever. So sometimes falling asleep was difficult, earplugs helped, but they could never block that pinging noise completely.. On the other end of the spectrum, I found it enjoyable to hear the waves crash against the side of the ship and see the water splash onto the cabin porthole. I also found it cool to hear the ship breaking through ice and hear the crushing and scraping sounds that accompanied it as the ice scraped the sides of the Amundsen.

The Food 

The food on the ship was amazing! There are three cooks that worked it seemed non stop to create delicious dishes and awesome desserts. Food was never lacking and the menu was different everyday. There are two dining areas on the ship; the Officers Dining area is more restaurant style and fancier as the officers wear their uniforms and the food is served to you, while the Crew Dining area is more casual and cafeteria style. Although I could have eaten with the Officers, I opted to eat in the Crew Dining area for all but one meal. There were generally two different dishes depending on your preference for each meal, but if you wanted you could get “half and half,” a little of both as to not miss out on anything; this made it hard not to overeat as I usually got half and half. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner had set times to help the cooking staff from working harder than they already were, but it wasn't hard to find plenty of food in the dining area between meals and in the middle of the night. They made fresh desserts daily which were irresistible and had me going back throughout the day to get more. As well as fresh cookies and muffins always at the ready. The fridge and freezer was stocked with deli meats, cheese, and other essentials as well as ice cream to curb hunger at anytime of the day. The bad part about all the food was that it was so readily available and so good that it was hard to not keep eating during down time; sometimes I didn't know if I was feeling sea sick or if I had just eaten too much!

Preparing samples in the lab.

The People Onboard

The Amundsen had a mixture of personal aboard the ship including the coast guard crew and all the science personal. The ship is based out of Quebec, so the ship in general is French speaking, but luckily almost all crew members were at least partially fluent in English so it wasn't that much of a problem to only speak English. The science personal contained a mixture of French and English speakers from all over Canada. The only time it was awkward to not be able to speak French was when going to get food; the cooks it seemed were the few individuals that knew limited English and it would sometimes be awkward to communicate exactly what I wanted to eat. But it never really bothered me because even if they gave me the wrong thing, I knew it was still going to taste good regardless. It was a pleasant surprise to find out that many of the other science personal were similar in age to me, which made making friends relatively easy and made for an overall really enjoyable cruise. Even though I didn't hangout with some as much as others, everyone on the Amundsen was so nice and friendly, it definitely made the three weeks on board stress free and a fun environment.

Breaking ice in M'Clure Strait.

Other Random Things

There was access to wifi on the ship, but it was terribly slow and got bogged down with the high number of people all using it at once. Access to the wifi network even became restricted to the hours of 4pm-10am, leaving the network open during the day for those who needed its full bandwidth to send and receive important documents. I basically only used the wifi to be able to message my wife back and forth, couldn't load much for either Instagram or Facebook. There was also satellite TV on the ship, although it was limited to only a few English channels. A moustache contest was ongoing during the three weeks, so there were many good staches roaming the ship. I did have hopes of seeing a polar bear, but we weren't lucky enough to come across any this time, but I was lucky enough to be out super early in the morning for a box core and saw the northern lights! I’ve never seen them before, and they were spectacular to see as they danced their way across the night sky; I just wish I had a better camera with me so I could have caught the event on camera. But I think by far, my favourite thing was watching the ship crush and plow it's way through the ice. I would just go out on the deck and watch off the side ship as the ice would break and be displaced as the ship went through it like it was butter; although I could only last until I started to get too cold. 

Overall, my time spent on the Amundsen was an awesome experience, and I learned a lot about ship based field work. I made many new friends, and saw a part of world I never thought I would see. The Arctic is a unique place, and has become one my favourite places I have travelled too. The experiences I had were totally amazing and it was an adventure I'll never forget. I hope that in the future I’ll again find myself cruising through the Arctic, maybe even see a polar bear.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Hello Coronation Gulf & Goodbye Geoteam

These last few days we have made our journey from the Beaufort Sea into the shallow marine channels of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. This waterway is a major link between the Arctic Ocean and the North Atlantic, transporting huge amounts of water, sea ice and sediment towards Baffin Bay. Because the Arctic Ocean also connects to the Pacific Ocean via Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia, water masses found in the archipelago can be of Pacific or Atlantic origin.

Theoretically, any route that links Baffin Bay to the Beaufort Sea and beyond into the Pacific via Bering Strait is a “Northwest Passage”. Practically, a straight east-west route has historically been blocked by thick, old sea ice, though this is changing now with decreasing ice cover. The most common Northwest Passage is a seasonally ice-free west-south-southwest route from Lancaster Sound towards Coronation Gulf and via Amundsen Gulf into the Beaufort Sea. We are currently in Coronation Gulf in the southwest of the archipelago and making our way east towards Queen Maud Gulf, near where the HMS Terror, one of the ships of the 1845 Franklin expedition, was found earlier this month.

The Canadian Arctic Archipelago nestled between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans (above) and a closer look at the marine channels (below) and the Northwest Passage (yellow line). [Source: Google Earth]

The day before yesterday was busy for the geoteam with sampling the seabed - more on coring soon – and it was not until the evening that things settled down. Additionally, many of the scientists onboard were busy with packing up their things, in preparation for a science rotation. That is, many scientists (though none of the crew) that had been on the ship since the end of August were flying back south while a new cohort was coming on board. In addition to new scientists coming onto the CCGS Amundsen, there is also a group of high school students that are participating in science activities as part of the ArcticNet Schools on Board program. For this rotation, many members of the geoteam from the Geological Survey of Canada, Dalhousie University, the Norway Geological Survey and Université du Québec à Rimouski have left so that the geoteam has shrunk somewhat to only four people! Nevertheless, our now small but still mighty team will continue to take geological samples, as we make our way towards Lancaster Sound. Onwards and upwards!

Science rotation by helicopter and a saying 'So Long, Farewell, Auf Widersehen, Goodbye!' to most of the geoteam.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Dispatches from the Northwest Passage

As Arctic sea ice is on the decline, new, previously impassible gateways are opening up for ship transit. One such path is the Northwest Passage – the route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via the shallow marine channels of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The Arctic is a sensitive barometer for the consequences of global climate warming observed over the past few decades. Such shifts in the natural environment are numerous, but perhaps the most visible change is the drastic reduction in Arctic sea ice extent and thickness that has been directly observed by satellites since the 1970s. It is this decline that is allowing more ship traffic in places like the Northwest Passage – including the Crystal Serenity, the first full size cruise ship to sail the passage. We met her in late August off Ulukhaktok in Amundsen Gulf, the southwest gateway to the Northwest Passage.

I am part of the geological team together with scientists from the Geological Survey of Canada – Atlantic and other institutions that are mapping and sampling the seabed of the Canadian Arctic. There are many more teams on the ship on this part of the expedition, ranging from ecologists to chemists, oceanographers, and atmospheric scientists. From the geology standpoint, we are particularly interested in deciphering how the Canadian Arctic Archipelago evolved since the demise of the great ice sheets that blanketed the entire region some 20,000 years ago. There are many parallels between past and present environmental changes. For example, the behaviour of past ice sheets in the Canadian Arctic can help elucidate how the great ice sheets of today – in Greenland and Antarctica – may respond to future climate change. Similarly, forecasted changes in ocean circulation and their effect on ecosystems can be tested by using the new geological data we have collected these past two (hectic!) weeks.

Reconstructed extent of the last ice sheets in Arctic Canada. White is coverage by ice; thick grey lines denote the position of former ice divides (summits); black arrows mark past ice streams (fast flowing sectors of the ice sheet) that drained the interior of the ice sheets. [Figure from Lakeman et al. (in prep.)]

Monday, September 12, 2016


Welcome to this blog! I am currently on a scientific expedition in the Canadian Arctic onboard the Canadian Coastguard icebreaker Amundsen and will be posting updates from this journey as we travel from the Beaufort Sea through the Northwest Passage.