|Chief scientist Tim Papakyriakou hauls garbage bags filled with snow to serve as markers for a make-shift runway on a remote ice floe where a Twin Otter is scheduled to land Wednesday to set up a day-visit research camp.|
There’s a never-ending progression of phantasmagorical shapes, limited only by the viewer’s imagination and experience.
Someone who has spent time in southern Africa might find that the irregular checkerboard patterns formed by pressure ridges remind them of kraals, the rural mud enclosures for cattle.
Then there are the ridges that stretch to the horizon, some lines straight enough to pass for railway embankments but most resembling wandering cow paths. Elsewhere the surface patterns echo the way family farms got divvied up into thinner and thinner slices under the seigniorial system in medieval Europe.
For more than two hours today this icescape of the imagination unrolled beneath the Coast Guard’s rented Bell 212 helicopter after it lifted off from the research icebreaker Amundsen, which is temporarily wedged into an ice floe just south of Banks Island in the Western Arctic.
I joined five others on the flight: the two pilots, Bob Pelletier and Trevor Dewin; the Amundsen’s captain, Lise Marchand; the chief scientist for this leg of the expedition, Tim Papakyriakou; and Pierre Larouche, a phytoplankton researcher with the federal department of fisheries and oceans.
All of them were scanning the frozen vista with eyes much more practiced and practical than mine.
Someone experienced in reading the ice could tell that everything below during the entire 425-kilometre journey was new, formed only this winter. The clues are topography, colour and – if you get close enough – taste.
New ice is too salty to keep in your mouth but most of the salt has leached from multi-year ice and it can be safely sucked.
From the air, however, the best tip-off is the topography or surface contours. Melting and refreezing during summer smoothes the characteristic jagged landscape of new ice into more gentle hills and dales of multi-year ice.
Where wind has blown away the snow, the colour of the ice can also help. New ice is much bluer in the surface layer than multi-year ice. Scientists would cringe at my simplistic explanation but let’s just say the older ice gets, the more the top portion looks worm-riddled.
This is only a kindergarten introduction to the manifold varieties of sea ice. To truly immerse yourself look at the ice codes pages on the website of the Canadian Ice Service. And you might also be fascinated with sastrugi.
That’s an Antarctic word that Tim imported to describe the snow surface on the remote ice floe in Prince of Wales Strait where a day-visit research camp will be set up later this week.
Today we marked a make-shift runway there for the aircraft that will try to land to deliver a large tent and other equipment. If you happen to be flying over the Strait and spot a dozen black garbage bags more or less in a straght line, you’ll be able to see sastrugi first hand.