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One key piece of equipment that will be loaded onto the Coast Guard icebreaker Sir John Franklin this summer is, oddly enough, a tractor. That's because the vessel, which is being refitted for scientific research in the Mackenzie River delta, will spend about half the year frozen solid in Franklin Bay. The tractor will be used to create a runway for the Twin Otter aircraft that will be the ship's lifeline.
Alphonso Mucci will likely spare a thought for the scientists and crew members aboard the vessel when he has to shovel his driveway next winter. The chair of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences will be leaving in early September for a 43-day stint aboard the Franklin.
The 98-metre vessel, a medium-weight icebreaker, is designed for river use but will serve as the research platform for the Canadian Arctic Shelf Exchange Study (CASES), a network of Arctic researchers. Led by scientists at Laval University and with partners from the federal departments of Fisheries and Oceans, Environment and Natural Resources, the vessel is now being outfitted with $8.5 million worth of scientific equipment. Researchers from countries as far flung as Japan and Britain and universities across Canada will examine the effect of global climate change on the Arctic.
"It's interdisciplinary, it's international. There's nine participating countries, but it is led by Canada," said Mucci of CASES.
"It covers everything from atmospheric physics, ice physics, ice chemistry, biology in the water column, chemistry in the water column and paleo-geography."
Mucci has been involved in numerous ocean-going research missions before, but this will be his first to the far North. That he's willing to pack up for six weeks -- leaving a five-year-old daughter behind -- speaks to the importance of this project. CASES represents the beginning of a turn-around in Canadian Arctic research, which has been falling behind countries like France, even though it's our own backyard.
"There's been a poor presence of Canadians in the Arctic, basically because we couldn't afford to go there -- it's extremely expensive. For the longest time the best we could do is piggyback on other nations' initiatives. Our presence was minimal, basically just beggars on somebody else's program. Now we're running our own program. In essence we're ensuring scientific sovereignty over our own waters," he said.
How expensive is it? Put it this way: it is cheaper to outfit the Franklin with a costly remote-controlled submersible to repair ocean sensors than it would be to pay for the annual insurance premiums on the devices.
The cost is worth it. Arctic research is of great importance to the world economy, all the more so in an era of global warming.
McGill biologist Neil Price won't be heading North, but he is working with Jean-Eric Tremblay and master's student Kyle Simpson to look at nutrient loading in the Mackenzie shelf, which is the area of shallow ocean water that extends off the Arctic coastline.
"We're interested in what fuels the productivity of the primary producers. These are unicellular, photosynthetic organisms that use sunlight and CO2 to produce organic fuel," he said.
"What we're interested in is the relative contributions of those two sources to primary producers on the shelf. If the Mackenzie is important as a nutrient source to the shelf, then you can imagine that the supply from the river could be driven by climatic changes," said Price.
Rising temperatures could have far-reaching ecological and economic effects. Though small, Price's micro-organisms are the bedrock for the web of connections upon which the Arctic maritime ecosystem lies -- the fate of the phytoplankton could have a direct effect on the population of polar bears.
Where the Mackenzie's effects would be felt is also a matter for speculation. Price explained that in the winter, ice formation limits the scope of the Mackenzie's flow into the sea. However, when the ice bridge breaks, the Mackenzie plume extends beyond the edge of the shelf, and then recedes as run-off as melting snow dissipates.
"In the context of climate change, if we get more precipitation in the North, the flow of the MacKenzie could be increased," he said.
The ecological health of the shelf has obvious impacts on the local economy. Global warming could have other economic impacts on the area -- and world-wide, according to Mucci. Less ice in the Arctic means that Canada's northern waters could become navigable year round.
"Climate change will likely have the most impact in the Arctic region and affect how that region will be used in the future. We've talked about the Northwest Passage since the 15th century, and it might come to be in the next decade, and that has economic implications," explained Mucci.
Although being able to sail freighters through the waters north of Nunavut would be a boon for shipping interests, the impact of increased shipping on the delicate ecological balance of the Far North is a mystery. The environmental consequences of a melting Arctic are little understood -- but their effects could be disastrous.
"If there is a lot of ice melt, then there's a lot of fresh water being diverted to the North Atlantic, it might slow down thermohalinic circulation," said Mucci. Thermohalinic circulation is basically the circulation of the ocean waters -- deep water to the surface, and vice versa. An influx of cold, fresh water from melting Arctic ice would affect water chemistry and temperature.
"For example, you might shut down the Gulf Stream, in an extreme case. This means some countries would get warmer, some countries would get colder."
Mucci's specific research will measure the chemistry of the Arctic Ocean to determine whether those waters are a source or sink for atmospheric carbon.
He also hopes to chart the course of the Mackenzie 'plume' into the Arctic ocean over time by examining sediments on the ocean floor. The course of this plume could be affected by ice formation in the ocean, and could, along with the nature of sediment deposits, serve as a marker of climate patterns in the past.