By John Nightingale, President & CEO, Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre
The Jacobshavn Glacier or Sermeq Kujalleq is a large outlet glacier in West Greenland near the town of Ilulissat which ends at the sea in the Ilulissat Icefjord. It is one of the most active glaciers on earth and is feeding more and more ice into the sea. About 20 per cent of Greenland’s ice caps flow out through this narrow ice river mouth creating an ice fjord. Our group walked approximately three kilometres from the town of Ilulissat to a lookout point overlooking the ice fjord — now, a UNESCO World Heritage site. We found the bay where the river of moving floating ice (which broke off the face of the glacier up the valley) carries icebergs and smaller pieces out to sea.
As recently as 20 years ago, the glacier face was just one or two kilometers from saltwater and now it’s about 50 kilometres away. The glacier is receding fast and is now releasing flowing ice from the interior out into the ocean in much higher volumes. When glacier ice reaches the sea it causes sea levels to rise — just like putting an ice cube in a glass of water would cause the water level to rise. Sea ice, on the other hand, is already floating in and on the ocean and does not raise the sea levels when it melts.
We took the Zodiac to explore the ocean side of the ice fjord and took some amazing photos. Vancouver Sun reporter Daphne Bramham is also writing daily blogs and taking beautiful photos documenting this trip. Daphne’s job is to paint a written picture for readers using all of her professional experience and talent. We are delighted to have her and her partner John Skinner along on this trip of a lifetime.
The following day, we began to traverse Baffin Bay heading for the northern end of Baffin Island in Nunavut, where normally, we would expect to see some floating ice, remnants of last winter’s frozen sea. We were actively looking for this floating ice because that’s where you can usually spot interesting wildlife such as polar bears and walrus hanging out. However, Canada’s Arctic had a very mild winter (the warmest on record), and an early spring — in result, we did not see floating ice. What we did see were some big icebergs, most of which came from the Jacobshavn Glacier near Ilulissat.
Counterintuitively, the icebergs are moving north along the coast of Greenland because that’s the way the currents work in Baffin Bay. They will be carried around the bay in a counter-clockwise direction, coming south along Canada’s east coast past Newfoundland and out into the Atlantic Ocean. The scientists at the Canadian Ice Service track daily ice plots and told us we are out of luck this year for seeing floating ice in Baffin Bay. We will have to hope to see some further along the Northwest Passage as we head west through it in a few days.
We are keeping a close watch for marine mammals, especially whales. We have already seen fin whales – the second largest whales on earth after the blue whale. We have also seen humpback whales and a minke whale. One of the science programs we have aboard involves watching for and systematically recording marine mammal sightings. We are collecting this data in order to begin to estimate the population numbers for each species in the Arctic.
The second science project is also underway. We are using the ship’s salt-water system to pump raw seawater from approximately four meters down and filtering it with a very fine filter to collect microplastics (tiny plastic particles barely visible to the naked eye). Eric Solomon, director of Arctic programs at the Aquarium, is doing the sampling. In the first collection, we did find microplastic particles at depth. This kind of sampling has never been done in Canada’s Arctic, and we are all eager to see if we find microplastics in the Arctic Ocean. Most guests aboard One Ocean Expeditions spent this day at sea attending the educational programs presentations (including ones from Eric and myself), sorting through the thousands of photos that were taken over the past two days, and maybe even taking a nap.
With global temperatures on the rise, we’re racing against time to gain insight about one of the least scientifically understood regions on the planet: the Arctic. This month, scientists from Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre head north to expand upon innovative Arctic research projects started in 2015, in collaboration with Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR), the federal agency responsible for advancing Canada’s knowledge of the Arctic and for strengthening Canadian leadership in polar science and technology. This blog series chronicles our scientists’ time and research efforts in the Arctic.