Podcast

Science at the North Pole

On this episode of “Ask NRCan,” research scientist David Mosher talks about his experiences travelling to the North on a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker to map the Arctic Ocean floor.

Transcript

Joël Houle (Host):

Welcome, everyone, to Ask NRCan! This is a podcast series where we sit down with our experts to talk about an aspect of the work that they do here with us at Natural Resources Canada.

Today, I’ll be talking to a scientist who travelled to the North on a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker to map the Arctic Ocean floor.

For those of you who are new to the show, we call this series “Ask NRCan” because we want to hear from you. The purpose of the show is to share with you not only the type of science that we do but also why we do it.

So, at the end of the episode, if you have any questions on this topic, head to Twitter and tweet at us using the hashtag “#AskNRCAN”. Our expert will do his or her best to answer all relevant questions. Sounds good? Let’s do it!

My guest today is Dr. David Mosher. David is a research scientist who took part in several expeditions where the goal was to collect data to map out the Arctic Ocean floor. Every country in the world has sovereign rights over the marine resources found within 200 nautical miles from their borders. According to an international treaty, a country could potentially have sovereign rights over the seabed and the resources found beneath the seabed over a larger area if their continental shelf extends beyond those 200 nautical miles.

As temperatures increase and permanent ice recedes in the Arctic Ocean, countries like Canada, Russia, Denmark and the United States could access larger regions of the Arctic for economic exploitation. The information collected by David and his team is integral to the development of documents that Canada will soon submit to the United Nations to establish the outer limits of Canada’s continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean. David is here to tell us about his personal experiences during these expeditions.

David, thank you for joining us today!

David Mosher:

Thank you for having me on.

Joël:

Let’s set the stage first to understand why you where conducting this research, and then we’ll get into the trips themselves. Can you start by telling us a little bit about this international treaty, what is Canada’s involvement, and where are we at in the process?

David:

Yeah sure. It’s a big topic. I’ll try to focus on exactly what our role is in it. UNCLOS is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and it’s a big document. It’s really the constitution of the sea, and there are many aspects to it. But one that is very specific to allowing coastal states to establish extended continental shelves is an article called Article 76, and it is specific to establishing basically the outer limits of a coastal state.

When a country signs the treaty, they automatically have 200 nautical miles which we often refer to as the “exclusive economic zone” and I think most people are familiar with that concept. A coastal state can actually extend beyond 200 nautical miles to have sovereign rights over the seabed and what’s under the seabed — so the natural resources on the seabed and below the seabed — if they meet certain geological and bathometric conditions. So in order to establish an extended continental shelf, we needed to go out and survey the sea floor and look underneath the sea floor.

Joël:

David, before you continue, can you explain a little bit what is a continental shelf? I have trouble envisioning it.

David:

Well that’s actually a very good question, because there’s a geological continental shelf and there’s a legal continental shelf. They’re quite different. The continental shelf as we understand it in geology and the way we think most people understand the shelf is the broad, flat platform that extends out from a coastline. We can think about the extensive Grand Banks, for example, as a really good example of what a continental shelf is. So, typically shallow water, less than 200 metres or so, and then it comes to a point where it drops off to the deep ocean at the shelf break. Then you have the slope and the deep ocean floor way out in the middle of the ocean, the abyssal planes and so on. So that’s a geological continental shelf, that platform — the shallow water platform that dips at a very low angle, almost flat and horizontal. Whereas a legal continental shelf actually can incorporate both the shelf and the slope and even parts of the deep ocean floor. It’s a different entity entirely. You have to be careful of your language when you are referring to continental shelfs in this context.

Joël:

That gives us an overview so we can picture it in our minds. What is Canada’s involvement? What are we doing right now? Are we putting together information for our claim?

David:

That’s right. In the Atlantic, we made a submission to the UN — there’s a UN body called the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, and I actually serve now as a commissioner on that commission. But a coastal state makes a submission with proposing their outer limits, and this UN body reviews that and works with the coastal state on establishing what those outer limits might be. And so you have to, as I mentioned previously about the chemistry and the geology. So you make your case on these scientific bodies of evidence largely, and then the commission reviews it and works with the coastal state.

Canada submitted for the Atlantic back in 2013. Canada ratified the treaty in 2003, and then we submitted for the Atlantic in 2013. Now we’re in the final stages of preparing our submission for the Arctic. The Pacific doesn’t have an opportunity for it to extend the continental shelf on our Pacific margin because it doesn’t meet the criteria, the bathometric criteria which are set up to allow that. So it’s only in the Arctic and the Atlantic. In the Atlantic, it was approximately 1.2 million square kilometres of additional territory that Canada can potentially have sovereign rights over. In the Arctic, it’s yet to be determined, but probably not on that magnitude but pretty close.

Joël:

When are we going to have a response back from the UN regarding this claim?

David:

Another good question. Sadly it’s a long time frame. There are currently more than 80 submissions with this body at the UN, and about 30 now have recommendations, and the body has been in place to review recommendations for 20 years. It’s a slow process. It may be another six to ten years for the Atlantic submission, and then the Arctic submission — where it’s not even filed yet — will be somewhat longer obviously. It’s a long time frame.

Nonetheless, the treaty gives the coastal state those rights even though they’re not being used or established formally. Canada has the right to an extended continental shelf and has the sovereign right over the seabed and what’s under the seabed, even regardless of the fact that we haven’t established the formal boundaries. In essence, we’re just formalizing it through the UN body, and eventually it will be established in a formal and static manner. But in the meantime, we still have rights to explore in those regions.

Joël:

Let’s talk about the Arctic expeditions themselves. How many trips to the Arctic Ocean have you done yourself, and what was your role?

David:

We had expeditions since 2007 to 2011 each year, and then 2014, 2015 and 2016. I was chief scientist on four of those missions — 2009, 2010, 2011 — and then again in 2014. I helped plan the ones for 2015 and 2016. I participated actively as chief scientist on four of those missions, and those were two ship missions. Three of those were with the US and their flagship icebreaker called the Healy and the Canadian icebreaker, our flagship icebreaker, the Louis St-Laurent.

Joël:

How far north did you go? Did you actually make it to the North Pole? Did you go past the North Pole?

David:

All of the work was quite far north, anywhere from the Beaufort Margin in the south all the way to the North Pole. We only went to the North Pole two years: 2014, 2015 and 2016. Initially, most of our work was focused above the north of the Canadian margin, which is a little bit south of the North Pole. But we were close to the North Pole even in 2011 — we were very close, within a few hundred kilometres. But in 2014, we took two Canadian ice breakers, the Terry Fox and the Louis St-Laurent, and went all the way to the North Pole. That was duplicated again in 2015.

Then in 2016, we partnered with a Swedish icebreaker, the Odin, and so it was the Louis St-Laurent and the Odin who went North and made it as far as the North Pole.

Joël:

I guess when you go way up north, it’s very remote in the Arctic Ocean. Is that why you go with an icebreaker from a different country? Just for security reasons?

David:

Oh, multiple reasons. That’s certainly one of them. The principle reason is when you are surveying — particularly with what’s called seismic reflection surveying, where you’re towing systems behind the vessel — you cannot break ice and tow gear at the same time. So you have a lead icebreaker that actually breaks the ice in front of you, and then the surveying ship would follow behind towing the equipment. Even with hull-mounted systems, like a multi-beam sonar, it’s helpful to have an icebreaker in the lead. It certainly improves data quality immensely. So you can imagine when you’re icebreaking, not only is there a lot of noise and a lot of relatively violent motion to the ship, but there’s also a lot of backing and ramming forward to break ice, especially when it’s particularly heavy. You certainly can’t do that as you’re towing gear behind the vessel. A big advantage to having two ships just from a practical point of view. And then of course it’s certainly a big value added to have that security in case you did get stuck in ice to have a second icebreaker to come and help you and assist you out of the ice.

Joël:

That brings up an interesting point. How different is an Arctic expedition versus one in the Pacific or Atlantic Ocean?

David:

It’s quite different. Neither are particularly easy, especially given weather conditions in the North Atlantic. The big issue is of course having to deal with the ice, so that requires having some specialized equipment and some modifications to existing technologies. Certainly from a planning perspective, you’re limited in the number of days you can spend there. The ice minimum is in early September. You can survey with our icebreakers at least anywhere from probably early August to towards the end of September, would be the restriction. But then you start to lose daylight in early September, and by mid-September you’re working lots of time in pure darkness, which is also difficult in ice conditions. So there’s quite a bit of unique challenges to surveying in the ice, that’s for sure.

On the other hand, you don’t have to contend with the weather and high waves and so on, so there are some advantages as well.

Joël:

Let’s talk about some of these unique challenges, the challenges that come with being on a vessel in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. 

David

There’s always some challenges. I think that any icebreaker, any vessel, has challenges in that regard. I would say the most severe one for us — there were a couple of different ones — probably the most severe one was we had to leave the ice at the risk of the losing a propeller, and we had to be basically escorted out of the ice in that case. Fortunately, we had pretty much done most of our surveying at that point in time. We didn’t lose too much in the way of survey time, but we made it out, and the vessel eventually got home through its own power without too much difficulty. Perhaps one of the biggest risks is med-evacs. If anything happens up there you’re a long, long way from any medical attention. I recall one time we had to leave the ice, and it took about five days to steam towards Tuktoyaktuk before we could drop off the injured party. So you lose a lot of survey time, and it’s a big risk from that perspective. Even though we have medical personnel on board, it’s always preferable and necessary to get them out if their condition is serious at all.

Joël:

When you’re facing a situation like this when you’re in the middle of nowhere where you can only be accessed by another icebreaker, what goes through your mind when you go through one of those mechanical failures or medical emergencies?

David:

Truthfully, I don’t think about it too much. I think it comes from years of experience of having confidence in the ship’s personnel that they can get you out of most situations or deal with most situations that are thrown at them. I think it’s just a confidence in the ship’s personnel and your own personnel that they’ll be able to deal with it. I really don’t think about it too much.

On the other hand, you do plan for those types of things, so we did carry a nurse and doctor on board, of course, and we had appropriate medical equipment. We improved that equipment over the years that we surveyed and tried to minimize that risk. So I think just good planning and confidence in your team.

Joël:

Fair enough. What’s the most incredible or unforgettable thing that you’ve experienced during one of those trips?

David:

That’s a tough question, because there’s so much. The Arctic was literally unexplored, at least from the geological side of things. The seabed had never been observed before because of its perennial sea ice, so we were in parts of the Arctic, really, that man had never been before. All of that is so exciting. It’s all discovery in its purest sense – really frontier type of exploration. So that’s always so exciting, and that’s just incredibly memorable. On a personal side, I think observation of wildlife at those latitudes, like polar bears, is just an incredible thing. When you see a polar bear out on the ice, thousands of kilometres from any land, it’s just awe-inspiring how incredibly adapted those animals are to the Arctic environment. So from a personal perspective, I think those are exciting moments.

Joël:

That sounds amazing. Are you planning any other Arctic expeditions?

David:

I don’t have anything planned right now. You know, our survey work for at least for the Law of the Sea program, which is complete now — so there’s nothing that I have in the books. I do have my name in with some foreign vessels — or proposals, that is — to do some further exploration, and we’re always looking for opportunities to augment our work. It takes a lot of money and a lot of resources to work up there, so you need a very dedicated program. So you need something like this extended continental shelf program that has been able to support these kind of expeditions. It’s not something you can do without a lot of planning and a lot of funding. So nothing in the works right now, but I sure hope I get to go back because it really is an incredible experience.

Joël:

I hope you get the chance as well. Thank you so much, David, for your time today.

David:

It’s been a great pleasure to speak with you, and thanks for your interest.

Joël:

So this is the end of the episode, but — like always — it doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the conversation. If you have any followup questions for David, get on Twitter and tweet at us using the hashtag “#AskNRCan”.

Also, if you’re interested in learning more about the scientific work that we do at Natural Resources Canada, check out our online magazine called Simply Science. We have a ton of great content for you, including articles, videos and previous episodes of this podcast.

If you check out the podcast page, we’ll have links available to any relevant material to learn more about the Arctic research we do, as well as UNCLOS.

The best way to find Simply Science is to either Google it or click on the banner from our website at nrcan.gc.ca.

And, if you liked this episode and you are listening to us on Apple Podcast, Google Play, or SoundCloud, please consider subscribing so you can check out any previous or future episodes.

I think that’s it for us today. Thank you for listening! We look forward to hearing from you, and we’ll see you next time.

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