Volume 29 - Number 17 - Thursday, May 29, 1997

Warm water in the cold, cold North

by Alexandra Stikeman
Shaded area shows location of North Water Polynya

To many, the Arctic is a frozen, forbidding wasteland where few living things survive the extreme conditions. But to an international team of scientists, headed by researchers at McGill and Université Laval, the Arctic holds rich and exciting secrets.

Starting this year, a total of 61 researchers from around the world will unite their efforts and embark on a four-year, $34-million study of the North Water polynya--an 80,000 square km area of open water and high biological diversity located in northern Baffin Bay.

"This area has been a region of interest for centuries," says Dr. Grant Ingram, Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences professor at McGill and one of the principal investigators of the International North Water Polynya Study (NOW).

According to Ingram, the first European explorer to enter the North Water was William Baffin in the early 1600s. "They fought ice all the way up in May and June," he says. "When they finally got into this area, which was just open water, they couldn't believe it. They thought they had found the Northwest Passage."

The area, like other polynyas in the Arctic, becomes ice-free earlier than adjacent areas in the spring, and consequently attracts large numbers of key Arctic species, which use the open water for spawning, mating, feeding and over-wintering.

"It's considered to be one of the most biologically productive areas north of the Arctic Circle," says Dr. Louis Fortier of Université Laval, leader of the international effort.

Of the $34 million dollars in the project budget, $4.7 million was awarded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada (NSERC). The project will involve researchers from seven Canadian universities and various government agencies, as well as experts from the United States, Belgium, Denmark, Great Britain, Japan, Mexico and Poland. The main purpose of the study is to determine which physical mechanisms cause the polynya to form and how these affect the biology of the area.

"We don't really know why, exactly, the North Water is there," says Ingram.

Scientists believe there are two processes occurring simultaneously which cause the polynya to form, thus making it a unique spot. One is through wind blowing across the water and eroding the ice, and the other is through warmer waters entering the polynya and melting the ice from underneath.

The project will consequently involve taking thorough measurements of all physical aspects of the polynya using instruments such as current meters, temperature and salinity recorders, as well as tide gauges.

As the ice gets cleared away, large quantities of phytoplankton are produced. This provides food for many planktonic herbivores and thus draws a diverse array of species to the area, such as Arctic cod, seals, polar bears and many marine birds.

"The overall objective of the program is to link the physics with the biology," says Dr. Neil Price of McGill's biology department and one of the principal investigators studying phyto-plankton and the flow of carbon in the system.

The project will also include studies on things such as viruses and the effects of UVB on the plankton community, and will have a strong remote-sensing component to trace the movement of ice in the polynya, making it a highly interdisciplinary project. In turn, measurements from one study will be easily extendable to other studies.

However, of the many questions asked regarding the nature of the North Water, one of the more popular ones is how the North Water fits into the global warming equation.

According to Fortier, if global temperatures continue to increase, "you would expect the polynyas to become more frequent and more widespread." He postulates that the polynya could serve as a model for what might happen to the Arctic Ocean in the future.

However, another scenario might produce the opposite effect. When ice forms over the North Water in early autumn, it traps carbon dioxide dissolved in the surface waters and prevents it from returning to the atmosphere. This may serve as a potential sink for carbon and thus slow down the effects of global warming.

"It's possible that the polynya is absorbing carbon dioxide," says Price. However, he asserts that the North Water is a relatively small area and thus its contribution to the global carbon budget may be insignificant. Nonetheless, a large part of the NOW project will address these very questions and focus on the fate of carbon in the system in terms of biological production and the sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

The first trip to the North Water will take place this summer aboard the Louis St. Laurent, Canada's largest icebreaker, for the mooring of several key instruments. The ship will then house a crew of scientists throughout their 12-week expedition in the spring of 1998.

"We started planning this project eight years ago," says Fortier. According to him, both Canadian and international scientists have been eagerly anticipating studying the North Water for a very long time.

Alexandra Stikeman is a bachelor's student in biology and a participant in the Reporter's Student Science Writing Internship Program. Based on an initiative at the University of Guelph, the program is sponsored by NSERC.

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