Above: Image © exxorian, iStockPhoto.com

Have you ever wondered how ships sail through the Arctic? I mean, it’s covered by ice year-round...isn’t it?

I had no idea how this was possible - until recently. I met a young fellow who had the opportunity to sail near the geographic North Pole on a type of ship called an icebreaker. The young man showed me GPS data showing a latitude of near 89.9° N! That’s pretty close to the North Pole, which is at latitude 90° N.

The North Pole isn’t easy to reach in the winter, when the ice is widespread and at its thickest. This young man managed to get up there in August 2016 because of ice melt. Ice melt occurs naturally in the summer, but has increased in recent years because of climate change. With ice melt come a variety of negative consequences that can have disastrous impacts. But ice melt can lead to new opportunities for scientific research. It also creates a need for discussions and decisions about natural resources and territorial boundaries.

Arctic ice melting

There has been ice year-round in the Arctic for a very long time, but there is less of it year after year. According to NASA, the Arctic sea ice in September is currently declining at a rate of 13.3 % per decade. That’s based on the average measured between 1980 and 2010. Though it is declining, levels go up and down every year. The lowest sea ice recorded so far by NASA’s satellites was in September 2012.

Did you know? If the current trend continues, the Arctic might become ice-free during summers in the next few decades.

Today’s melting arctic ice trend will change sea levels, ocean conditions, and the Earth's temperature. All of these changes will have potentially serious consequences for all life forms on the planet, including you and me.

However, less ice could lead to more scientific discoveries in the Arctic. It’s always been difficult for scientists to access the Arctic, which means they still don’t fully understand it. When humans first tried to explore this region by ship, they had pretty serious difficulties. That’s because the ice was so thick and widespread that the strongest icebreakers couldn’t get through it. Now, the melting of thick Arctic ice allows hard core icebreakers to reach higher latitudes. There, scientists can collect new water, air and sediment samples. This can help scientists understand both the history and the future of the Arctic.

The continental shelf

Less ice also means greater access to the natural resources found in the Arctic. This raises some geopolitical issues. An important part of this discussion is the continental shelf. Generally speaking, the continental shelf is the part of the continent that lies just beneath the ocean. It is usually shallow (between 100 and 200 metres deep) and ends in a steep slope that reaches the ocean floor.

It’s important for governments to know where the Canadian continental shelf stops so that they can claim territories and secure natural resources like oil and gas in the Arctic. That’s because some natural resources are found in the continent below the water. A country can claim the land within what’s called the exclusive economic zone. That’s 200 nautical miles from its shoreline. However, a country may also claim territory beyond that 200 nautical miles if it can prove that the land is a natural extension of its continental shelf. That could mean that new and more natural resources may be claimed as Canadian properties.

To map the continental shelf, people use ice-strengthened vessels equipped with devices such as echo sounders. These are instruments that emit sound waves and use high and low frequencies to determine water depths and other natural features over the seafloor such as ridges and volcanoes. Canadian ships equipped with these echo sounders, such as the Louis St-Laurent of the 2016 Canada-Sweden Polar expedition, have already started to survey the Arctic waters to study and map Canada’s continental shelf.

I’m a geologist by training, so I found this application particularly interesting. It’s an interesting example of how sciences be linked to other aspects of life, like politics.

Students on ice program

The Arctic isn’t just for experienced scientists anymore. For example, the Students on Ice program has given many young adults the chance to make their dreams of visiting the Arctic come true! Programs like these give teens a chance to learn about the Arctic and the type of research being done there. Science allows explorers of all ages to discover the unknown!

Did you know? Researchers have found evidence that the Arctic may have had ice-free summers, with temperatures between 4 and 7 degrees Celsius, around 6 to 10 million years ago.

Learn more

The end of summer nears (2017)
N. Vizcarra, National Snow and Ice Data Center

Arctic Report: Inside An Icebreaker Ship (2016)
B. Draxler, Popular Science

Research ship mapping Arctic Ocean near North Pole (2016)
CBC News, CBC

The Global Impacts of Rapidly Disappearing Arctic Sea Ice (2016)
P. Wadhams, Yale Environment 360

Audrey Le Pioufle

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