Understanding Geological Processes and Marine Geohazards in Baffin Island Fjords and Baffin Bay

Baffin Island, the largest island in Canada, is part of the Arctic Archipelago, a chain of islands within the territory of Nunavut. While Baffin Island is often portrayed as a place of scenic landscapes frequented by Arctic wildlife, the area witnessed the largest known earthquake north of the Arctic Circle in November 1933. The Island’s sparse population, coupled with the location of the epicentre in offshore Baffin Bay, may explain the lack of reported damage on land. Today, the northeastern Baffin Island region is one of the most active regions in eastern Canada, with five magnitude 6 earthquakes recorded since 1933.

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Figure 1: CCGS Hudson deck crew deploying a current profiler used to record submarine avalanches (turbidity currents) in Southwind Fjord of Baffin Bay.

This past summer, a team of NRCan technicians and scientists travelled to Baffin Island to understand the risks that earthquakes and landslides continue to present to small communities situated on the Island’s coast. Submarine slope failures occurring in this area have the potential to generate massive tsunami waves, which can cause considerable damage to coastal communities. Conducting research on the impacts of slope stability to Northern coastal communities assists with the appropriate planning and preparation required to support the safety of people located in these communities.

“Working with other ambitious, intelligent, and dedicated members of the Public Service taught me the importance of collaboration and teamwork.”
- Meaghan MacQuarrie
Geotechnical Laboratory Engineer Student

This marine geoscience survey took place over the span of four weeks, but was the result of several years of effort and planning. It required community visits and consultations before and after the survey to understand the priorities of Northern communities and ensure that research approaches reflected Northern concerns for the environment. For example, during consultations in Qikiqtarjuaq, Inuit community members were brought aboard the CCGS Hudson vessel for a special engagement session where they could voice their opinions and concerns. To ensure quality research, the team took pan inclusive approach to share best practices. They reached across government departments, agencies and academia to get the opinions of scientists and technicians on their methods of collecting geologic, hydrographic and oceanographic data. Students were also trained and brought on board to gain experience in Arctic research.

New tools like drones and innovative science techniques such as water-seabed interaction analysis were also used in the surveying process. They helped the team to better understand and measure the risks of a coastal or submerged landslide causing harm to Northern coastal communities and infrastructure.

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Figure 2: The CCGS Hudson

Faced with ever shifting weather and ocean conditions, aboard the ship the team had to work in an agile manner to shift their plans and priorities daily, with health and safety always at the forefront. Time on an ocean-capable research vessel was scarce and invaluable, so it was important that these scientists maximized results, and fast. “It was a sharp learning curve collecting soil samples aboard the CCGS Hudson,” said Meaghan MacQuarrie, a geotechnical laboratory engineer student who was part of the team. “It required acute analytical skills to determine the most critical data to collect in a short weather window, while in the midst of a sensitive ecosystem.”

Along with her team, MacQuarrie proceeded with the next steps for the project, to communicate her findings to a broad audience and influence change to ensure the safety of Northern communities, such as Qikiqtarjuaq, in the long run. “This project provided me with an opportunity to visit one of the more remote parts of Canada and experience the beauty and culture first-hand”, she said. “I feel motivated to continue my academic and professional career promoting environmental excellence.”