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Breaking ice

Scientists hope frozen sea will yield climate-change secrets

John Barker
Northern News Services

Tuktoyaktuk (Aug 26/02) - It's the ice that matters.

Understand what's happening with the multi-year sea ice in the Beaufort Sea, across the Western Arctic, and you may be able to extrapolate from there and make predictions about the impact of global climate change, says Marty Bergmann, director of Arctic Science Program Development with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Winnipeg.

Today, 42 scientists from Canada, Japan, China and the United States, are sailing west through the icy Beaufort Sea, northwest of Tuktoyaktuk, near the Canada-United States border, where the waters off Alaska meet the Yukon boundary.

They're aboard the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St-Laurent, the jewel of the country's icebreaker fleet.

The St-Laurent is a heavy gulf icebreaker, one of only two in the Canadian fleet. It's capable of large ship escort in severe Gulf of St. Lawrence and Atlantic ice and weather conditions -- and capable of extended season operations here in the Arctic. It sailed North from its home port of Dartmouth, N.S., on Aug. 2.

Deep sea study

The St-Laurent is to be joined shortly by the CCGS light icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier, whose home port is Victoria, and the Japanese research vessel R/V Mirai. The three vessels will study the full span of the Western Arctic shelf-break and ridge system, Bergmann says, specifically from the Northwind Ridge to Banks Island. The three ships are scheduled to rendezvous off of Barrow, Alaska, around Sept. 7, Bergmann says. Depending on weather, they should be in the Beaufort Sea until the first few days in October, he estimates.

At the moment, the "multi-year" sea ice is between 30 and 60 nautical miles off the coast of Tuktoyaktuk, Bergmann says, adding "this is the best time of year to work in the Beaufort Sea" in terms of ease of navigation to study ice conditions in the Arctic. "The captain is reporting foggy conditions off of Tuk, but they've been making good progress," he says.

Also aboard the St-Laurent, at the invitation of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans are two Inuvialuit men: John Alikamik, from Holman, and Joe Illasiak, from Paulatuk. Both men have more than 10 years experience working with DFO on science projects, says Lois Harwood, a stock assessment biologist in Inuvik.

Bergmann says Alikamik and Illasiak are playing a sentinel role on the expedition, which is part of the Joint Western Arctic Climate Studies (JWACS) agreement between Canada and Japan.

"They've lived on this ice. They've hunted on this ice. These men know the ice," says Berg-mann.

"They know when it's safe to be on and when it's not, and they understand what the ice means. Some of the scientists may have worked with these sort of ice conditions before, but Mr. Alikamik and Mr. Illasiak bring a subtlety and nuance to their knowledge of the ice the scientists may not have."

Alikamik has worked with DFO as a seal monitor through the Holman Hunters and Trappers Committee since 1992. He has also worked with DFO on arctic char studies.

Illasiak, aside from working recently with a Japanese crew filming polar bears, has long experience working with DFO as a field technician and on char studies since the late 1980s, Harwood says.

Scientists aboard the St-Laurent are studying things like the melt rate and stratification of the multi-year sea ice, Bergmann says.

"The sea ice is a barrier -- a blanket if you will -- be-tween the atmosphere and the ocean," he says.

"The amount of ice, the density of the ice and other variables greatly effect ocean dynamics, particularly ocean currents."

The three-year joint Canadian-Japanese program, which kicked off this month, is also studying sub-ice algae and plankton, as well as measuring water temperatures, Bergmann says.

It's all aimed at studying the role of the Arctic Ocean in "climate variability," he says.

Global climate change, Bergmann says, has an impact on both the physical environment of the Arctic and the biological responses to that climate variability.

Scientists studying the waters and ice of the Western Arctic want to find answers, Bergmann says, to questions that have led to phrases like greenhouse gas sources and "carbon sinks," such as forests and crop lands, entering the wider public lexicon, especially since the Kyoto Protocol, signed in Japan in 1997 but still unratified by many counties, including Canada and the United States.

It is here in the ocean waters of the Western Arctic, Bergmann says, that scientists believe their project will go a considerable distance over the next three years to answering questions about climate change and what it might mean.