By Eric Solomon, Vancouver Aquarium’s director of Arctic Programs
It’s the middle of February, and while our friends are flying off to warm places like Hawaii, Neil Fisher, the Aquarium’s videographer, and I have found ourselves heading north. Way north. Last we checked, the temperature where we’re headed is a full 120 degrees Fahrenheit below Hawaii’s (in Celsius, it’s a 67 degree difference). Hawaii is currently at approximately 80 deg. F (27 deg. Celsius) and Gjoa Haven is a cool -40 (in both Fahrenheit and Celsius). But I’d rather be going where we’re going anyway.
We’re heading first to the Arctic community of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, then on to Gjoa Haven. From there, we’ll be traveling by snow machine for six or seven days across the frozen Arctic waters of Rasmussen Basin, Chantrey Inlet, Simpson Strait and Queen Maud Gulf. The average February temperature in the region is a cool -40 (both Fahrenheit and Celsius), and with the added 50 km/hr wind chill from our snow machines, that makes it quite a bit below bloody-freezing cold.
A common response both Neil and I receive when we tell people where we’re headed is, “Are you going there on purpose?” To be clear: yes, it is on purpose and for a very good reason. We’re joining scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and the Canadian Rangers on a unique and tremendously promising collaboration known as the Canadian Rangers Ocean Watch program (CROW).
The Arctic environment is changing faster than anywhere else on Earth. Yet, we still have a limited scientific understanding – not just about how it’s changing, but how it actually works in the first place. One reason for this is that it’s tremendously difficult to actually get out on the frozen Arctic Ocean and measure things during the winter.
This is where the Canadian Rangers enter the picture. The Rangers are reservists with the Canadian military. They are highly skilled and knowledgeable local hunters and trappers who know the land better than anyone. They conduct patrols throughout the Canadian Arctic all year long. Why not work with them to collect information about the ocean (temperature, salinity, oxygen, chlorophyll, etc.) while they’re out on winter patrols?
On this ten-day journey, DFO scientists Bill Williams, Sarah Zimmermann and Mike Dempsey will be training Ranger patrols from four Arctic communities as we travel across the ice to converge on a spot called Hat Island.
The data collected will tell a story about how fresh water and salty ocean water mix and move through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, the temperature of the water at various depths, the thickness of the ice and snow, and many other important measures that simply have never been taken in the region during the winter. It could not happen without a close collaboration between the Department of National Defense, DFO, and the people in the communities of Gjoa Haven, Taloyoak, Cambridge Bay and Kugluktuk.
For our part, Neil will be capturing the whole story via video and images (see the aurora borealis video below), and will be posting blog posts about his experience along the way. I’ll be working with the scientists, Rangers and communities to help build and grow the collaboration and ensure the story is told in both the North and the South. I’ve been all around the Arctic in the summer and a bit in the fall, but the opportunity to spend over a week travelling and camping on the winter ice with the most knowledgeable people anywhere will be an exciting first, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you as we go.
If all goes well, we’ll be stopping all along the way to drill holes through the ice and lowering equipment to measure all kinds of things. Challenges might include large ice ridges blocking our path, gaps and leads in the ice, polar bears looking for a snack, frozen gear, and potential for extreme weather events. But given whom we’re travelling with, I know we’re in the best hands possible. And we’re looking forward to sharing our story with you along the way.
Two Aquarium staffers – Eric Solomon, director of Arctic Programs, and Neil Fisher, videographer and photographer, are accompanying scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and the Canadian Rangers on a unique data-gathering initiative known as the Canadian Rangers Ocean Watch program (CROW). The group is traveling to various areas in the Arctic, and plan to share updates throughout their journey.