Going where no machine has gone before

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Venturing beneath the ice-covered Arctic Ocean: Column by Ian Marshall

Going where no machine has gone before

Since the days of the early explorers, many of the world’s mysteries have been revealed. But there are still some areas that have not yet shared their secrets, including the often ice-and-snow-covered Arctic Ocean.

While it is relatively easy to study the ocean surface, exploring beneath this icy veneer is a far greater challenge. This was the problem a group of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) scientists from the Bedford Institute of Oceanography (BIO) in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, tackled by creating the Icycler.

Unlike its predecessors, the Icycler is a scientific device built to survive the harsh Arctic waters for more than a year. Metres below the thick Arctic ice cap, the changing currents of the ocean violently move the ice and create deep ridges. Equipment that could be placed under the changing ice might be destroyed within a year, losing all potential data. In the past, this has made long-term data collection under the ice virtually impossible.

Enter the Icycler.

The scientists from BIO created the Icycler to avoid this danger through its three-piece design. First, there is a mooring held in place by a heavy anchor. The winch, which is attached to the mooring, hovers around 50 metres below the ice. Above the winch is a sensor that travels towards the ice to collect data. The scientists programmed the sensor to sense if the ice above is too close. This sensor is so accurate it can stop itself within five metres of ice.

The Icycler is now placed at the bottom of the Barrow Strait, where the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans meet. It is crucial to study the area that is 50 metres below the ice because of its relation to our climate. The Icycler records how much melted fresh water from the Arctic ice cap is entering the Atlantic Ocean, which until now scientists had difficulty determining.

The data collected is used not only by BIO scientists but also scientists who study climate all over the world. The information is used to improve climate change models so they are more accurate when predicting how climate change will affect the Earth and its many species.

The Icycler has been in operation since 2004 and its data continues to help scientists around the globe.

The BIO scientists who created the Icycler remind us that there is still so much to explore in the world and that, with the right equipment, anything is possible. (Ian Marshall is the DFO Area Director for Southwest Nova Scotia. If you have questions about this column or would you like to read about other DFO issues that affect you and your community in future columns send an email to CommEnquire@mar.dfo-mpo.gc.ca or call (902) 426-3550.)

Organizations: Bedford Institute of Oceanography, DFO, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Geographic location: Arctic Ocean, Nova Scotia, Dartmouth Atlantic Ocean

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