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Scientists use Nunavut research vessel Nuliajuk to map Frobisher Bay

New seabed knowledge will help sea port planning

By STEVE DUCHARME

Scientists working from the Government of Nunavut research vessel Nuliajuk have been gathering valuable information about the Frobisher Bay seabed. (FILE PHOTO)


Scientists working from the Government of Nunavut research vessel Nuliajuk have been gathering valuable information about the Frobisher Bay seabed. (FILE PHOTO)

This image shows the location of a submarine landslide on the west side of Frobisher Bay, where the seabed is soft and clay-based.


This image shows the location of a submarine landslide on the west side of Frobisher Bay, where the seabed is soft and clay-based.

Space may be the final frontier, but there’s still plenty for scientists to learn about the bottom of Frobisher Bay.

Recent efforts by researchers to map the bay’s seabed are proving that modern science may know more about the geography of Mars or the moon than what’s underwater just a few metres from Iqaluit’s breakwater.

That’s according to Calvin Campbell, a marine geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada and coordinator of the Frobisher Bay mapping project.

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“Every time you go out, you see something new,” Campbell said March 20 during a progress presentation for the public at Nunavut’s Research Institute in Iqaluit.

Most of the mapping has been conducted so far from aboard the Government of Nunavut research vessel, the RV Nuliajuk.

Scientists aboard the Canadian Coast Guard research icebreaker, the Amundsen, have also collected sonar data from Frobisher Bay while the ship performs regular duties in the bay.

Another Coast Guard ship, the Hudson, is expected to play a bigger role in the future, once rust repairs are completed on the vessel.

The team is using a combination of sonar and ground penetrating electronics to understand the composition of Frobisher Bay’s seabed.

The project will be a crucial source of data for a number of infrastructure projects planned for Nunavut’s capital, including the a deep-sea port that’s expected to be completed by 2020.

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On that front, Campbell confirms his team has identified almost 250 submarine landslides within the inner portion of Frobisher Bay alone.

“There are a surprising number of submarine landslides at the inner part of the bay, more than we’ve seen elsewhere definitely,” Campbell said.

That new insight complicates efforts to dredge a channel that would allow deep-sea vessels to approach the new port.

The bottom of the bay, said Campbell, is soft and clay-based, especially on the west side, and makes the area prone to instability.

And strong tides in the bay’s interior could also erode any progress made dredging the malleable seabed.

But gaining knowledge is the first step, and the new data will be invaluable for engineers when they reach that stage of development.

The east side of the bay is stable bedrock, carved out by glaciers during the last ice age, and would provide more solid footing for development.

That issue could affect other potential projects, such as a fibre optic cable from mainland Canada, or a potential trans-Baffin Bay cable from Greenland to supply cheap hydro-electricity.

Campbell explained the Frobisher Bay mapping project is part of a larger study to catalogue bedrock formations, seabed geology and to locate natural leakages of oil and gas from the ocean floor around Baffin Island.

To that end, Frobisher Bay is proving to be rich in signs of leakages, from craters known as “pockmarks” which pepper the sea floor in the study’s existing data.

So far, researchers have identified approximately 2,348 craters in the bay, but not all of them are related to natural gas or oil leakage, Campbell added.

“These are sediment rich areas, with high organics that could also cause it,” he said.

The study has not been without its share of curiosities, with several anomalies catalogued so far on the ocean floor.

The team discovered a number of man-made containers lying on the bottom of the bay.

“They were 20 feet long and rectangular, you could see them on the multi-beam,” Campbell said.

He suspects the objects are old sea cans that were either intentionally deposited on the floor or fell off a barge.

But their origin remains a mystery.

And circular scrape marks made by icebergs visiting the bay in the summer can still be seen along the ocean floor, caused by the strong tide pulling the berg towards the shore before pushing it back out to sea.

Campbell hopes to get two complete maps detailing the seabed of the interior and exterior of Frobisher Bay finished by 2018.

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