Science on the high seas
Icebreaker is home away from home for team of Swedish researchers

Richard Gleeson
Northern News Services

IQALUIT (July 05/99) - As far as science centres go, they don't come much better than the Louis S. St. Laurent.

The icebreaker motored out of Iqaluit last week, loaded with 40 scientists embarking on studies of the tundra. The expedition is organized and funded by the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat and the majority of scientists on board are Swedish.

"One of the best things about working here is we don't have any telephones," said chemist Hans Boren. "We can work without interruptions."

There's just about everything except phones on board, including several kitchen sinks, a helicopter, laboratories, a sumptuous lounge, capsule-like lifeboats, a small barge, a large zodiac, a dining area and a bird-tracking radar -- the duck hunters' equivalent to a fish finder.

The radar, of course, is not going to be used by duck hunters. It will be used to analyze bird migration patterns in order to distinguish between different populations of birds that nest in the High Arctic.

"We're moving into an area where there has been no radar studies," said scientist Thomas Alerstam. He and his associates will use the radar to study sandpipers, terns, jaegers and some ducks and geese.

"We know birds use the magnetic field for orientation, but we know they can't use it up there, closer to the North Pole."

Along with birds, scientists are studying tundra vegetation, fish and wildlife, such as lemmings, that depend on the tundra for survival.

The expedition is a follow-up to a 1994 Russian-Swedish study along the Russian Arctic coast.

"The main focus is tundra ecology," said expedition leader Anders Carlqvist.

"The tundra plays a very important role in the overall global environment," he said, noting the Arctic is an early indicator of environmental changes such as global warming and environmental pollution.

The Louis St. Laurent, he said, is "a very original idea for terrestrial work.

"It's a very convenient platform for people to live and work on. We can access areas that would be difficult to reach otherwise, using the helicopters to move around."

Key to the expedition will be integrating the different studies into a cohesive analysis of the tundra environment, said Carlqvist.

Because of the large area they will be covering, the ship will also allow scientists to examine ecological variations from region to region.

The Louis S. St. Laurent will weave its way through the Arctic islands as far North as the magnetic North Pole, then head southwest to Tuktoyaktuk, where another group of scientists will board for a second voyage to the North and back east.

It is scheduled to stop in at Iqaluit of Sept. 4 on the return trip to Sweden.