UVic group to install observatory system under the Arctic ice to monitor changes

As Arctic sea ice levels hit record lows, the University of Victoria will have an eye on one of the most dramatic changes taking place on the planet today.

UVic's Ocean Networks Canada has been given a five-year licence to install a small, cabled observatory system under the ice off Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

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The system uses the same technology developed for the NEPTUNE and VENUS cabled networks, which send real-time information from under the ocean off the west coast of Vancouver Island and the depths of Saanich Inlet to scientists around the world.

The Arctic Ocean is changing faster than any other, and information about those changes will help communities cope, said Kate Moran, president of Ocean Networks Canada.

"This is critical. It's something we should have been doing a long time ago," she said.

"It's crucial now, given the loss of sea ice, which is something we'll have to better understand in the future, especially for communities that rely on ice for their livelihood," said Moran, who led the first drilling expedition to the central Arctic Ocean in 2004.

People in the north use the ice for hunting, fishing and transportation, so information about the thickness and structure of that ice is crucial, she said.

The aim is to connect the real-time data to information from satellites and other sources.

It will be made available to scientists and northern schools, colleges and communities.

The loop, which will have a camera and test for markers such as salinity and temperature, is being tested at UVic's Marine Technology Centre.

It will be installed by a team of UVic engineers in late September, before the ice starts forming again.

No one knows what new information the under-ice observatory will reveal, but one possibility is that, with warming temperatures, there will be sightings of species from more southerly latitudes.

"If we start to see animals that don't usually live there - wow," Moran said.

The mini-observatory will also give information about the changing consistency of the sea ice.

"I hadn't been in the Arctic for several years, and I went last summer and I was stunned by the difference in the sea ice," Moran said.

"It was still beautiful, but so fragile and so different."

It should give everyone pause that perennial sea ice has existed on the planet for at least 15 million years, Moran said.

"What we are seeing is a major part of the climate system basically collapsing."

Those living in more southerly areas of the continent cannot escape the effects of those changes, Moran said.

Solid sea ice creates a polar vortex that keeps the cold air in the Arctic, but with the melt, the vortex is breaking down and letting the cold air out, she said.

"It's like opening the door and we have had these really cold winters in North America and in Europe. It's changing the weather system," she said.

However, Moran still hopes that humans can cope with the changes if they are given enough information.

"I am hopeful because we are pretty smart," she said.

On Monday, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that the Arctic sea ice cover had melted to its lowest extent ever seen in satellite records, breaking the previous record low seen in 2007.

The ice now stretches over 4.10 million square kilometres, a drop of 70,000 square kilometres from 2007.


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