BackgroundUntil very recently few people took much interest in the Arctic. Most people - even Canadians - knew nearly nothing about the geography of the region or its history, and even fewer cared about the details of the ocean's ice cover. "The Arctic is cold; what else is there to know?" Even the Canadian government, responsible for an enormous area of islands and waterways in the High Arctic was rather indifferent. During the budget speech of 1994, the government - embroiled in an austerity program - announced the closing of its west-coast defence research laboratory, and this almost wrote finis to its defence research in the Arctic. Similarly, other Arctic research dropped to a fraction of what it had been in the 1970s. However, beginning sometime after the year 2000 the High Arctic began to look more and more interesting. It seems that when it comes to the climate of the globe the Arctic has a role that is out of all proportion to its size. All discussions of 'global warming' or 'climate change' or (choose the latest buzz word) involve the importance of the Arctic Ocean as a heat sink and as a reflector (or absorber) of radiation. Now everyone seems to be interested and knowledgeable about the thickness of the Arctic ice and just how much the total mass is down from historical averages. Related to this warming and to the observed decay of the sea ice is the possible opening of an east-west passage through the Arctic archipelago every summer. This would give freighters a short passage between the North Atlantic and the North Pacific every year - a 'Northwest Passage' that could last several weeks. For the world in general and for the shipping companies in particular this would be 'a good thing', but for Canada there are problems that need to be addressed: safety, navigational aids, sovereignty, the clean-up of oil spills, etc. Recent actions and statements by the Prime Minister indicate that some of these items are under active consideration. The Arctic holds another fascination for the countries bordering the Arctic Ocean. They suspect that there are enormous quantities of oil and gas under the sea bottom. Nothing has been 'proved-out' yet (as far as I know), but the probabilities are good, and common sense dictates that these resources should not be ignored, especially when ship access to the Arctic Ocean may be possible in the not-too-distant future. Therefore, the five 'polar' countries involved, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the USA, have been busy investigating the land under the Arctic Ocean. They have been doing bathymetry, seismology, sediment studies, etc. - particularly in those portions of the Ocean that they hope to control. With the exception of the USA, they have been working under the auspices of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). (A Google search will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about UNCLOS. In particular, the US Senate is still split over whether to sign onto the Convention.) The field trips of 2006, 2008 and 2009 (described here in the Newsletters) were all UNCLOS-related. Doubtless, the most reported event - so far - of this jockeying for position in the Arctic was the Russian descent to the bottom of the Ocean at the North Pole and their planting of a Russian flag on the bottom. Two small submersibles, each with three people, made their way to the bottom of the ocean - 4200 metres down - while the ice breaker at the surface tried to maintain an open hole in the ice. (The ship was working on the optimistic assumption that the submersibles would return.) Maintaining an open area in the ice was not particularly easy since the ship had to fight a constant ice-drift of about 150 metres per hour. Part-way down, the submersibles lost contact with their acoustic navigation aids at the surface, so they no longer knew where they were. However, they continued to the bottom and then, after doing their work, they started back up. Luckily - to make a long story short - everything turned out well, and both submersibles were reunited with their mother ship. It was a tale of adventure, daring-do and bravery, and it is too bad that this story was lost in the political frenzy caused by the planting of the flag. For an account of the expedition (and some very interesting pictures), see:
My interest in the Arctic began in 1971 when I started work with the Defence Research Establishment Pacific. I first went north in the summer of 1971, and I have gone to the Arctic almost every year since. I started writing Newsletters in 1998 when email became available in the north. The letters described our day-to-day activities, our trials and tribulations and our occasional successes. They were originally written for family and friends in order to let them know that we were alive and well. Also, our co-workers back at the lab wanted to know how we were doing. To my surprise other people became interested, and the Newsletters developed a following. It appears that many people are fascinated with the Arctic and with the way people live and work in its rather severe conditions. They enjoyed following our adventures (such as they were), and they liked the touches of local colour. Starting in 1999 the baud rate became high enough for pictures to be included with the narrative, and this increased the level of interest. Because of the success of these newsletters, and because of the growing fascination with the Arctic, I have decided to put the letters on a website. The links in the sidebar will lead you to the various years and their Newsletters. I hope you find them interesting.
The Spinnaker ProjectThe Spinnaker Project was a joint Canadian-American endeavour to lay a fibre-optic cable on the ocean bottom (under the solid ice-cover) from Alert to a large array of hydrophones 180 km north. For a short summary and for leads to more detailed documents, click here.
A Field GuideOne more document that might entertain you if you are interested in the Arctic is "A Guide to Arctic Field Trips", by Ronald Verrall. It is a book-length report describing many of the techniques we developed for doing under-ice research in the Arctic. It also describes many of our mistakes and failures - and what we did about them. The copyright belongs to Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) - Atlantic, and the document should not be disseminated further without their approval. The document's access number is "Technical Report DREA TR 2000-094, January 2001". Click here to download it. (The size of the file is about 3.6 MB.)
Disclaimer:The opinions expressed in this web site are my own. They are not necessarily those of the Government of Canada nor of the Defense Research and Development, Canada (DRDC) in Halifax.
Ronald Verrall, September, 2009
Last update - September 2012
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