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May 23, 2004. 01:00 AM
 
Jim Coyle 
Rosie Dimanno 
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Royson James 
Breaking the ice, internationally
Icebreaker plays host to scientists from near and far Arctic missions reinforce Canada's Arctic sovereignty

PETER CALAMAI
SCIENCE WRITER

ABOARD CGCS AMUNDSEN—Jozef Wiktor is striking evidence that the national rebirth of Arctic science currently underway here using Canada's first research icebreaker is also an international affair.

With a bushy beard, pipe and face darkened by decades of Arctic exposure, Wiktor looks like he stepped right out of a drawing of 19th-century polar explorers.

But he and his colleagues from the Polish Academy of Sciences are on the cutting edge of today's research into the types of plankton that thrive in the Arctic's frigid waters, even during the months of ice cover.

These minute plants and animals are a crucial link here in what's called primary production, the transformation of carbon dioxide in the air into the carbohydrates that nourish all life.

The Polish expertise in distinguishing the many confusing animal forms of zooplankton is valuable enough to be rated the same as cash support during the Amundsen's current mission, the Canadian Arctic Shelf Exchange Study (CASES).

Most researchers from foreign countries contribute cash toward the ship's operating costs, usually $50,000 per team, and pay their own travel costs, plus a $50 daily charge per person for room and board.

Dozens are willing to do so, ranging from Japanese experts in ocean currents to an American biologist seeking clues to the kinds of micro-organisms that might live on icy moons around the outer planets.

Over CASES's six-year run, foreign researchers are expected to account for roughly half the project's research effort. But their importance goes beyond dollars and scientific expertise.

Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic has been repeatedly challenged, even for ocean areas clearly within the accepted territorial limit of 200 nautical miles.

In 1999, an American research team absconded with pieces of a petrified forest from Axel Heiberg Island and the U.S. government has declared that American ships would treat an ice-free Northwest Passage as an international waterway.

Until the $30 million refitting of the Amundsen with a dozen labs and tonnes of specialized scientific equipment last year, Canada's spending on Arctic research had been in precipitous decline. In 2000, a federal task force warned that the existing level of research was inadequate to deal with threats facing the Arctic environment or to buttress Canada's claims of sovereignty.

The CASES research is specifically aimed at better understanding the Arctic environment, but sovereignty is intended as a byproduct of the science.

"Precisely because of a large foreign participation, such programs represent highly visible steps towards strengthening Canada's claim on her High Arctic province," argued one of the funding proposals to the federal government.

Many of the researchers have worked together before, on projects in other parts of the Arctic with various countries taking the lead role.

"This is why we say that we have a kind of Arctic mafia," Wiktor chuckles.

The 53-year-old plankton expert forged his initial ties to Canada back to 1993, when he met Louis Fortier, a Laval University professor who leads CASES, during a German-led Arctic research project.

Sailing to Greenland for that project, Wiktor also met Michel Gosselin, a marine sciences professor at Université du Québec Rimouski.

Fortier invited Wiktor to join a Canadian-led study of one of the Arctic's tantalizing polynya, areas of the ocean that remain open although surrounded by sea ice. And that led to collaboration here on the Amundsen, where Wiktor has shaped his work to dovetail with the plankton investigations by Gosselin's research group.

"I came here to compare the warm Arctic, which I know well from around Svalbard, to the cold Arctic here," says Wiktor, using the Norwegian name for Spitsbergen. That group of glacier-encrusted islands extends to 84 degrees north latitude yet is bathed by the remnants of the warm Gulf Stream.

Other foreign researchers are seizing the opportunity to compare the marine ecosystem of the Canadian Arctic with areas they have already studied.

In addition to the Americans and Japanese, those on the most recent leg of the Amundsen's mission include:

Russian researcher Sergiy Savelyev, who specializes in studying the physical and chemical characteristic of blowing snow, including pollutants that hitch a ride on snowflakes.

Lena Seuthe, 26, a German researcher who is studying the complex role that zooplankton plays in transferring carbon down through the water column. In a further instance of the international nature of the project, Seuthe's work is being supervised by a professor from the Norwegian Polar Institute at Tromso.

Finnish researcher Jens Ehn, who is currently at the University of Manitoba and studies how the crystal structure of Arctic ice affects the amount of light that passes through to provide the energy essential for the growth of algae on the ice bottom.

Marta Estrada, who derives mathematical formulas to model how phytoplankton are buffeted by the turbulence of Arctic waters. Based at the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Barcelona, Estrada has carried out similar extensive research in the Mediterranean.

Nathalie Morata, 25, a French scientist working on her Ph.D. at the University of Connecticut and on her second six-week stint aboard the Amundsen, where she is gathering sediment samples and photographs of the ocean bottom.

The goal of her Ph.D. research is to trace the relationship between sediment pigmentation and the sources of those colours, including bottom-dwelling animals and maybe even staining by polar-bear blood.

"I had been looking for some place to do work in the Arctic and I came across this opportunity through an Internet listing by a professor at Connecticut," she says.

Morata's involvement may well outlast the Amundsen's current mission. The current crisis in government science funding in France has her looking to North America for an Arctic research career, hinting at a reversal of the polar brain drain Canada has experienced for years.

Additional articles by Peter Calamai


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