Out on the Ice!

Researcher Michel Poulin writes from the Arctic hamlet of Resolute, where he has been participating in a research project since May 4, 2011.

A man extracts a core sample from the pack ice.

Museum researcher Michel Poulin collects an ice sample near Resolute, in the Arctic. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

As I wrote in an earlier post, the stations chosen for microscopic algae sample collection can be reached by snowmobile if they are within reasonable distance from the Polar Continental Shelf Program facility, our base in Resolute, Nunavut. If the stations are further afield, however, we have no choice but to travel by helicopter or airplane.

But before we head out to the stations, we have to prepare all the equipment and materials we’ll be using to take samples and readings of environmental parameters.

All the gear is packed in a sled attached to the snowmobile (if that is our mode of transportation) or loaded onto an airplane or helicopter. I have to say that travelling by snowmobile is a lot harder because we are totally subjected to weather conditions and the rugged terrain of the ice. We arrive at our destination frozen and tired before we even start taking samples. But it’s just the opposite when travelling by airplane or helicopter. We’re kept nice and warm before we reach the stations, which makes things much more enjoyable.

Once it’s reached the station, the four-person team immediately set to work preparing the equipment and materials. Two people are in charge of taking ice-core and surface-water samples, as well as light readings. The two others collect vertical hauls with plankton nets and take readings of a few environmental parameters, in addition to preparing and numbering the ice-core samples.

How are ice-core samples taken, you ask?

First, we use a power ice drill to grind a 9-cm hole in the ice without breaking through to the surface water. What we’re interested in is right near the section of ice in contact with the underlying water.

An ice sample with a brownish patch of microscopic organisms.

An ice sample discoloured by microscopic organisms. Image: Michel Poulin © Canadian Museum of Nature

Once this step is complete, we slide an ice corer (see photo) into the drill hole and manually turn the corer handle. The tool works its way through the lower part of the ice to collect an ice core sample that is 7 cm in diameter and 3 to 4 cm thick. The sample, which is generally quite colourful, is retained inside the cylinder of the corer. We usually take a total of nine ice-core samples this way.

Then we slide a mechanical arm mounted with a light probe, a pump and a rubber tube down a sample hole. Using a cord attached to the arm, we can position the light probe beneath the ice surface to take a direct reading of the ambient light. Then we work the pump to take up around 20 litres of water, which will be used as rinse water during handling procedures at the lab.

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