|Two Environment Canada researchers crowd use a parka as a sun shield so they can read a laptop screen in the brilliant Arctic whiteness. The icebreaker Amundsen in three kilometres away in the background.|
OFF CCGS AMUNDSEN—It was an ideal day for an excursion on the Arctic ice – brilliant sun, a cloudless sky, barely a zephyr of wind and a fascinating research project at the end of a short trip.
But I’d forgotten how unwieldy a body becomes encased in five layers of clothing. Without Ralf Staebler’s help I might never have managed to get my legs astride the snowmobile.
Staebler and fellow Environment Canada research scientist Alexandra (“Sandy”) Steffen were making one of the every-other-day runs from the coast guard ship Amundsen out to a suite of detectors that are constantly recording chemicals like mercury and bromine as they flit between snow, ice and the air.
It’s not quite a lab on a chip, but it is a lab on a sled. The whole instrument armoury is less than two metres long and draws a mere 100 watts.
That’s the same as a standard light bulb (of the old-fashioned incandescent kind). Even then it would take a long extension cord, since the Amundsen is 1.3 kilometres away.
In the crisp Arctic air the ship seems a lot closer, say within a Tiger Woods driver and mid-iron range. But Jacques Claveau, the bosun or maître d’équipage in the ship’s working language, points out that distances are easier to gauge from the deck, because the 800-metre runway provides a rough-and-ready ruler.
Jacques is the most crucial member of the four-person team; he’s armed with the rifle that might just stop a hungry polar bear. If he’s a very good shot, that is.
To keep the lab-on-a-sled ticking over, batteries have to be changed every two days. We’re not talking your household AAs or car battery either, but eight heavy, deep-discharge, 12-volt marine batteries.
Switching the battery connections requires doffing mittens and even cotton liners. Your fingers register the minus 25 C within a nanosecond. Maybe less.
The sled must also be repositioned to ensure that a guy rope isn’t interfering with a sensor. And since no one brought a hammer, Jacques fetches a hefty chunk of ice to drive the guy rope stake into the frozen surface.
Then comes the big moment – downloading the past 48 hours worth of precious data from the sled’s onboard computer. Sandy dramatically unzips her parka and extracts a laptop that’s been warmly nestled there.
The brand name may be ToughBook but the Environment Canada scientists have found to their sorrow that even these laptops don’t stand up well to Arctic cold. The one being used today is a spare of another make after the incumbent died and couldn’t be resuscitated.
The laptop links to the sled’s computer through a wireless connection, although there’s a metal box separating them. A far greater technical problem is being able to read the laptop screen in the stagelight glare of Arctic sun, snow and ice.
Sandy’s parka again comes to the rescue, used as a substitute for the dark cloth with which photographers shield the viewing screens of large-format cameras.
Jacques laughs at the sight of the two scientists huddled under the parka, saying it looks like one parka animal is devouring the other.
While Ralf keeps watch in the dark on the data transfer, the parka-less Sandy tries to keep warm by running in tight circles and performing calisthenics. After more than five minutes, she finally admits to feeling cold.
Fortunately the readings have successfully been retrieved and a few minutes later all four of us are back aboard the ship.