'We expect to see an invasion of animals and plants from the South.'

Icebreaker records changes in iceless land


RESOLUTE BAY – There's an icebreaker here, but little ice to break.

The Canadian Coast Guard's Louis St. Laurent arrived July 18. Ten years ago, residents say the ship would have put its ice-ready, reinforced hull to use. Now the ship sits off shore, surrounded by open water.

Climate change is the reason the ship is here, conducting one of the biggest projects under the umbrella of International Polar Year: the Canada's Three Oceans study, which researchers hope will provide a full picture of how the Arctic Ocean is changing as the climate warms.

"We expect to see an invasion of animals and plants from the South," says John Nelson of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who is chief scientist aboard the ship.

About 10 related studies are underway. One is led by Connie Lovejoy of Université Laval, who is using a cluster of canisters called a "rosette," to collect water samples from different depths of the Arctic ocean.

The rosette lets Lovejoy catalogue the water's temperature, salt content and other properties at different depths. It also catches whatever tiny organisms live in the water.

Won't warmer waters support more plankton and other tiny critters that form the basis of the Arctic food chain, creating more food for bigger animals, such as Arctic cod and seabirds, to feast on? Not necessarily.

"If you have a bunch of weeds in your garden, and they're very pretty and then die off, it's not the same as perennial plants," Lovejoy says.

"When you start changing the bottom of the food web, you don't actually know how it will affect other organisms."

It's too early for researchers on board to comment on their findings – they've just begun work that will continue in their laboratories for years after the ship has docked, in their laboratories.

But any findings from this year will provide a valuable baseline to compare future studies. Nelson says he hopes to see regular environmental monitoring of Canada's Arctic waters in the future, building on this year's work.

Other gadgets aboard the ship to assist research include a "mud grab," to scoop sediment from the ocean floor, and videocameras that are trained on the seabed.

The St. Laurent did encounter some ice to break on the way up, off Pond Inlet and stretching across the Davis Strait to Greenland. The ship's captain, Andrew McNeill, expects to find plenty more, in McClure Strait and McClintock Channel, as they push forward through the Northwest Passage and into the Beaufort sea.

The ship cuts through ice much like a knife. The hull is built so it will rise up on the ice, then come crushing down, using the ship's weight to bust up the frozen ocean.

The St. Laurent is also equipped with a "bubbler," which produces bubbles that prevent ice from re-forming around the ship as it works its way forward through pack ice. It's especially useful when sea ice is covered with snow. "It's like it's sticky," says McNeill.

The ship left Dartmouth, N.S. two weeks ago, and won't return to port until October, after travelling about 15,000 kilometres.

Aside from scientific monitoring, the ship is prepared to help any waylaid adventurers who find themselves stuck in the ice while attempting to cross the Northwest Passage in small boats.

"There's probably a few itching to get going, who have been waiting in Cambridge Bay."

McNeill needs to be especially cautious when such small boats are around. If he spins the ship's propellers too quickly, it sometimes sucks ice toward the stern, where a small craft may be following.

When the ship crossed the Arctic Circle, the crew "initiated" newcomers to the Arctic on board, including a CBS reporter and producer, by pouring icy sea water over their heads and stuffing fish guts down their shirts.

It's a time-honoured naval tradition, which traditionally also involved the shaving of a newcomer's head. Newcomers on the St. Laurent received much friendly taunting from crew about the fate of their hair, but were spared in the end.

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