Experts on ice

Norah Foy au glacier Kaskawulsh, au Yukon.

“This work is important because ships can get stuck in areas of dense, thick ice for days at a time. My analyses are used to create charts that help ships to safely and efficiently navigate through Canadian waters."

— Norah Foy

By Mike Foster

After the coldest winter in 20 years, one that saw the polar vortex hold much of North America in its icy grasp, it may be difficult to believe that sea ice is melting in Canada’s Arctic.

University of Ottawa researchers and alumni are at the forefront of monitoring the impact of a warming world on the Arctic.

From 1990 to 2012, total ice declined by 40% during the shipping season. The total volume of vessels increased by 75% in the Northwest Passage and Arctic Bridge, two emerging shipping routes.

Over the past 10 years, Associate Professor Jackie Dawson of the Faculty of Art’s Department of Geography and Institute for Science, Society and Policy, has built relationships with Inuit communities in Pond Inlet, Gjoa Haven and Iqaluit to conduct research into the social impact of sea ice melt, increased shipping and economic development.

Dawson, Canada Research Chair in Environment, Society and Policy, hung out in grocery stores and attended drum dancing events to get to know the people and hear first-hand how the landscape has changed.

“There are amazing stories from elders, who saw the first ships come to their communities,” says Dawson. “Now it is a regular occurrence. (The Inuit communities) are quite concerned because it affects their livelihood. They are still involved in subsistence living, hunting for caribou and other game.”

As the Arctic becomes more accessible, there has been an increase in tourism. Known trips by private yachts have increased by 300%, although the absolute numbers are still low compared to other regions. This has meant educating tourists to respect Inuit communities and not treat them like museum pieces, says Dawson. Working with the community of Pond Inlet, Dawson produced a pamphlet which offers guidelines on how to behave.

“I have seen a tourist pick up an Inuit child, move the child over so that there was a glacier and an iceberg in the background to take a picture — without the child’s or the child’s parents’ permission. There are elders who have told me stories that when cruise ships first turned up tourists would just open their doors and walk in their houses, like it was some sort of museum,” says Dawson. “There was this newness of ships arriving and there has been a learning curve (for tourists).”

Unexpected finding

Meanwhile, Dawson’s colleague, associate professor Luke Copland, University Research Chair in Glaciology, conducts research on sea ice, ice shelves, glaciers, ice caps and icebergs, which provides a big picture view of physical changes across the Arctic. Copland, director of the uOttawa-based Laboratory for Cryospheric Research, says a paper produced by his PhD student Wesley Van Wychen has for the first time measured the motion of all glaciers and ice caps in the Canadian Arctic, using data from a Canadian satellite. The data, recently published in Geophysical Research Letters, is using images dating back to 2011 to understand whether motion is speeding up or slowing down over time, says Copland. An unexpected finding emerged from the research.

“We were looking at iceberg discharge, in particular how much ice reaches the ocean and how many icebergs that produces. What was surprising for us was that the Trinity-Wykeham pair of glaciers on eastern Ellesmere Island discharges roughly half of all icebergs in the Canadian Arctic — just one glacier complex. What it means is that the sensitivity may be higher than we expected. If just one glacier changes, that is enough to change all the icebergs you see in the Canadian Arctic,” says Copland.

Previously, there was data for a few glaciers but there was a big hole in the map in terms of the full regional picture, he says.

“In terms of the global importance of the Canadian Arctic to iceberg discharges, we found it accounts for 7.5% of total iceberg discharge outside of Greenland,” says Copland.

Understanding iceberg sources and how they are changing over time is a key part of the big picture for shipping in the Arctic. It is becoming increasingly rare to find multi-year-ice (MYI) that is five, or even three years, old, says Copland. However, some areas of the Northwest Passage can still have harder, stronger MYI that breaks off into shipping lanes.

“If we are seeing less sea ice, the first thought is that it will make navigation easier for ships through the Northwest Passage. However, less sea ice can also make it easier for remnant multi-year ice pieces to make their way from the Arctic Ocean into this area, which can actually increase risks for shipping,” says Copland.

Luke Copland est debout sur une falaise surplombant un glacier au Yukon.

Luke Copland, University Research Chair in Glaciology, after stepping onto a cliff from a helicopter to overlook Yukon's Tweedsmuir Glacier. Photo: Dorata Medrzycka

The work feeds in to research led by uOttawa, which began with the Climate Change Adaptation Assessment for Transportation in Arctic Waters (CATAW) scoping study in September 2013. The study applies University strengths in both natural and social sciences to Arctic change. A follow-up study, published in the January edition of the journal Climate Change, examined whether sea ice melt is leading to increased shipping traffic in the Canadian Arctic. Although it concludes that evidence of a direct link is weak, shipping traffic has increased, especially since 2007, and there is evidence of the shipping season extending beyond the usual period of June 25 to October 15.

With help from master’s student Larissa Pizzolato, Dawson is now comparing Canadian Coast Guard data on the number of ships with actual sightings of vessels provided by local residents and Automatic Identification System data, which reports the position of ships that have geographic information systems. Pizzolato plans to visit the Coast Guard base in Iqaluit this summer to observe how the dataset is collected. For Dawson, it’s a question of checking the facts, particularly as smaller crafts are not obliged to report or provide their itineraries.

“We have local people who report to us and send us pictures of ships and we cross-reference them with our dataset. I would say 95% of the ships that we are hearing about are in the dataset. So we estimate that we are missing about 5%,” says Dawson.

The case of the Berserk II, a 48-foot vessel with shark’s teeth painted on its hull that landed in Gjoa Haven and then Cambridge Bay with two illegal crew members with criminal backgrounds on board, is one example of the potential risks to northern communities, she says.

The Transport Canada-funded CATAW study is just the tip of the iceberg of research being led by the University. Researchers are drawing on expertise from more than 20 groups, including the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Environment Canada and the World Wildlife Federation, to examine issues of global and national importance related to safety, security and economic development in the Arctic.

“We have the Northwest Passage, we have the largest number of polar bears globally, we have a huge indigenous population in our Arctic, we have a duty to be protecting the Arctic and we should be proud of it,” says Dawson.

“The north has always been a traditional focus for the University but that focus has strengthened recently,” says Copland. “Ottawa is one of the major centres for the north in terms of the supply chain — the main daily flights to Iqaluit leave from Ottawa. Most people from Nunavut who need medical care or the dentist come to Ottawa. There is a long tradition and quite a big Inuit community here.”

The fact that the University is neighbours with government scientists and policy-makers in the House of Commons also helps.

“The advantage to being in Ottawa is that it is very easy to have those connections with government. If you want to meet with someone you can just go down the street,” says Copland.

Love for the Arctic

Norah Foy (MSc ʼ09) started a new job in January as an analyst with the Ice and Integrated Satellite Tracking of Pollution (ISTOP) program at the Canadian Ice Service (CIS), part of Environment Canada. Foy uses satellite images to observe ice conditions — location and thickness — in Arctic waters, but also the Great Lakes, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland.

“This work is important because ships can get stuck in areas of dense, thick ice for days at a time. Thick ice can also cause significant damage to ships and offshore structures. My analyses are used to create charts that help ships to safely and efficiently navigate through Canadian waters,” says Foy. “When a possible oil spill is detected, the CIS communicates with the Coast Guard and Transport Canada.”

Foy says she got hooked on a career in northern sciences during her first field trip to the Kaskawulsh Glacier, Yukon, as Copland’s first grad student.

“The trip was really exciting. I flew in a helicopter for the first time, snowshoed across an ice field and rappelled down a crevasse. I had never experienced anything like that before. And I knew I wanted to see more of the north,” says Foy.

Tyler Sylvestre (MSc ʼ09) is using the skills and knowledge he acquired while writing his thesis under Copland to drop GPS trackers on ice islands, analyze satellite images and provide forecasts of ice movements with Calgary-based company Canatec. Although his thesis was on a glacier in Devon Island, Sylvestre says measurement techniques and field experience he learned at uOttawa have helped him in his current job.

“The company’s main focus is on when glaciers and ice shelves calve and break off into the ocean,” he says. “What is happening is that these (ice shelves) are breaking off in large chunks the size of downtown Ottawa. Once they come into the water they are called ice islands. Over time, as they are drifting along, one piece becomes two pieces, two pieces become 20 pieces, and so on. We put GPS instruments on to those pieces and track them as they are moving through lease areas of oil companies. Researchers also want to know where this ice is moving.”

Main photo:
Norah Foy at the Kaskawulsh Glacier, Yukon, where she completed work for her master’s thesis. Photo: Sierra Grace Pope

Jackie Dawson, avec les maisons de Pond Inlet en arrière plan.

Jackie Dawson, Canada Research Chair in Environment, Society and Policy and a uOttawa associate professor, looks out at picturesque Pond Inlet.


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