Letter from the Arctic

Breaking Ice

Pond Inlet, the “Switzerland of the Arctic,” is situated at the northern end of Baffin Island. Its mostly Inuit residents, their colourful houses almost touching the dark waters of Eclipse Sound, look out at the ice-capped mountains and glacier-filled valleys of Bylot Island’s Sirmilik National Park.

Eclipse Sound itself is littered with icebergs, which calve off glaciers as they move towards the sea. One particularly handsome specimen is lodged on the bottom just offshore the hamlet; its pinnacle stretches 50 metres high.

Climate change has made Pond Inlet a busy place, full of tourists, prospectors, scientists and bureaucrats. I’ve arrived on a chartered flight from Iqaluit, 1000 kilometres to the south. There are two other big planes already parked on the small gravel apron, along with two smaller turboprops and a pair of helicopters. Together, the seven aircraft could hold 200 people; the tiny terminal, in contrast, has seats for just 10.

Arctic Icebreaking
The Amundsen

It’s busy offshore, too. The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen is anchored alongside a 20-metre motor yacht and a 10-metre sailboat. As we swoop overhead, the Amundsen’s helicopter pilot tells me that the sailboat is from Australia. Its owners have come to sail the Northwest Passage. Later this summer, we might have to rescue them.

The Amundsen has rescued tourists before. Last summer a Yugoslavian-built ice-strengthened cruise ship, the Clipper Adventurer, struck an underwater ledge in Coronation Gulf, 1500 kilometers southwest of here. Fortunately, the seas were calm and the Coast Guard was just two days sailing time away. Had the weather been worse – and it usually is in the Arctic – hundreds of lives might have been lost.

Just last week, two Inuit hunters died near the hamlet of Arctic Bay after their six-metre boat overturned in five-metre waves.

For this reason, our arrival on the Amundsen’s flight deck is followed by an hour-long safety course. At one point, we have to strap ourselves into one of the enclosed lifeboats. I’m seated beside Julie Payette, the Canadian astronaut, who smiles at my visible nervousness in that tightly confined space. “Don’t worry,” she smiles, “help will arrive within a week.”

Although lifesaving takes priority, the Amundsen’s principal mission is science. In a unique partnership with ArcticNet, a federally funded consortium of researchers from 29 Canadian universities, the Coast Guard vessel provides a mobile platform for the collection of data and samples. As we sail towards Lancaster Sound, we’re constantly measuring the environment, mapping the bottom with sonar, slowing down to trawl for plankton and fish larvae, and stopping periodically to collect water and seabed sediments. We even have a small, remote-controlled submarine on board, which is deployed through a “moon pool” on the underside of the ship.

Tomorrow, we’ll be looking for sea-ice, and particularly “multi-year ice.” This is ice that forms on the surface of the ocean during the winter months and survives the following summer’s melt to become much thicker and harder. It is this ice that provides the best habitat for seals, narwhales, belugas and polar bears. It is this ice that keeps foreign vessels from entering the Northwest Passage and challenging Canada’s sovereignty claim. And it is this ice that is disappearing at a phenomenal rate, as rising air and water temperatures melt it from above and beneath.

The VIPs on board – Payette, former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard, British High Commissioner Andrew Pocock – are hoping to see a polar bear. These “charismatic carnivores” stand more than three meters high and weigh
up to 600 kilograms. Seemingly invincible, the bears are threatened with extinction by the rapidly melting of the ice. As their scientific name ursus maritimus indicates, polar bears are a sea-going species that has evolved specifically to hunt ringed seals on ice. The bears can survive on land for months at a time, but they need to catch seals to build up the vast fat stores that enable them to nurse their young. The ringed seals also need ice, as do the Arctic cod on which the seals feed, and the plankton the cod eat.

Every visitor to the Arctic becomes acutely aware of two things: the raw, awesome beauty of this place; and the fact that climate change is advancing much more quickly than many people in the “South” would believe.

What responsibility do we, the human species, have to the Arctic? Is the planet ours to exploit, to alter irreversibly?

It’s “bar night” on the Amundsen, but I’m feeling too meditative to join in the singing. I retire to the top deck and watch the midnight sun play across the water, snow and ice. Then, I hear it – the ice-cube cracking in my drink. Chipped off an iceberg earlier today, the ancient ice is releasing molecules of atmosphere into my drink. Molecules that might have been locked inside a glacier since before modern man (homo sapiens) appeared on Earth.

UBC Travel Program: Canada’s Northwest Passage

This summer, 41 UBC alumni and friends participated in expeditions to the Canadian Arctic and the legendary Northwest Passage. Presentations, conversations and learning accompanied their exploration of the great outdoors aboard the Russian-flagged Akademik Ioffe, designed and built in Finland as a scientific research vessel in 1989. Experts on board presented on topics including climate change, wildlife, Inuit culture and history, and early European explorers. Here are some highlights from both legs of the voyage.



  1. Christopher Keller says:

    Facinating report. Can’t resist, however, contesting the assertion made here that cod eat plankton. They are higher up the food chain.

  2. […] Read the article on Trek Online! This entry was posted in Travel. Bookmark the permalink. ← Canada’s Northwest Passage – Summer 2011 […]

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