CROW and Collecting Wintertime Data in the Arctic Ocean

Canadian Rangers drilling through ice

“This year we were working at minus 35 and we realized, that’s where just about everything starts to work badly. We had snowmobile issues. We had ice auger issues. We had plastics breaking. I noticed for one of the few times that the local Inuit Rangers we were working with were cold. These are the guys who take their gloves off and warm up shackles with their bare hands.”

Arriving at the day’s site by snowmobile, Mike Dempsey and the Rangers dug out the snow, drilled through the sea ice, and lowered oceanographic instruments into the Arctic Ocean. The wintertime data, collected once or twice per season in locations up to several days along circuitous routes from a handful of Nunavut communities, is information only a decade ago oceanographers never had.

CROW – Canadian Rangers Ocean Watch – came about by a fortuitous partnership between the Canadian government departments National Defense (DND) and Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), and it began with two men waiting for a plane for home.

In 2009, Eddy Carmack and Mike Dempsey sat in the Yellowknife airport wondering at better ways to get the type of data they had just collected. From Victoria, British Columbia, they had flown to Yellowknife, Yukon, then northeast to Resolute, Nunavut, and finally using a 19-passenger Twin Otter aircraft they hopped between sites, when the weather allowed, to collect oceanographic data in the wintertime Arctic Ocean.

It was expensive, unreliable and time-consuming. And, there was little communication with the local people. Even in summertime, when according to Dempsey, a senior Arctic oceanographic technician with DFO, they were “doing roughty-toughty icebreaker stuff, going way offshore, we weren’t dealing with the people who actually live in the Arctic.”

So, they thought, who goes out on the land, on the ice, in winter? The Canadian Rangers. It turned out Carmack’s friend Martin Bergmann, an Arctic research scientist with DFO (before his tragic death in a plane crash in Resolute in 2011 and for whom the arctic research ship, RV Martin Bergmann, is named) was also a friend of the General in Yellowknife who was in charge of the Rangers. “We got an audience with the General,” recounts Dempsey. “We pitched him the idea that we could do oceanography off a snowmobile in winter. We pitched that in early 2010, and then in 2011 we did our first field season.”

“It got started in Cambridge Bay,” says Carmack, who was the lead scientist when CROW began, “because about that time they were talking about the new Canadian High Arctic Research Station [scheduled to officially open October 2017].” From the centre of the Canadian Arctic archipelago in the east to the Mackenzie Delta in the west, CROW expeditions have been led from Cambridge Bay, Kugluktuk, Gjoa Haven, and Taloyoak, in the Kitikmeot Region of Nunavut, and Tuktoyaktuk, Ulakhaktok and Paulatuk in the Northwest Territories.

Rangers are trained on the use of the science kits that Dempsey assembled. Then they, and sometimes a researcher or technician from DFO, go out for up to a week, taking measurements at locations the group agreed on beforehand.

‘The underlying philosophy,” says Carmack about the involvement of the Rangers in the planning process, “is that people with experiential knowledge of place, like the Inuit, who had to know it because of their survival, have something to offer science.’Eddy Carmack

“The underlying philosophy,” says Carmack about the involvement of the Rangers in the planning process, “is that people with experiential knowledge of place, like the Inuit, who had to know it because of their survival, have something to offer science.”

In 2011, when Carmack retired in name only, becoming an emeritus researcher, Bill Williams, a research scientist at DFO, took over as lead scientist for CROW. Williams says of the Rangers, “They understand where it’s safe to go out on the ice and where it’s interesting”. The Rangers take on all the logistics of traveling on the ice, and Williams says, “We attempt to have a plan that is doable by them and interesting for us.”

The Rangers, in their 70th year, are Canadian Armed Forces Reservists. They work in over 200 remote communities and count about 5,000 members. Dempsey says, “Most people think they’re just in the Arctic, but they’re all over northern Canada, on the B.C. coast and down the Labrador coast, and in Hudson Bay, and all over.”

“In the communities, the Canadian Rangers have a special place. This is one of the institutional structures in small communities. They do search and rescue. They do the northern warning system patrols. They do sovereignty patrols. They train the regular forces in winter travel and survival. In some communities there are Junior Canadian Rangers, which function as a cross between Scouts and Guides and Cadets.” And, for the last eight years, they have been collecting oceanographic data that scientists would not otherwise have.

There are four science kits currently in northern communities. Each contains an RBRconcerto CTD, a Turner Cyclops fluorometer, and a Rinko dissolved oxygen sensor. Dempsey says the RBR instrument was chosen because the conductivity sensor does not rely on pumped flow; because of its slim profile so drilled holes can be small; and, as Carmack says, “it is robust and well-suited for Arctic conditions.” Also part of the kit is an 8-inch ice auger; satellite telemetered temperature buoys, each connected to a thermistor string for measuring freeze-up and thaw timing; a folding zooplankton net; and water sample supplies.

A key technical challenge is keeping anything that touches the water warm. Dempsey explains, “if the conductivity cell [on the RBRconcerto] gets colder than -2, and it hits the seawater, it will glaze with ice.”

Their latest solution, satisfactory to Dempsey, is to keep the RBRconcerto in an insulated bag (sewn by a DFO team member) that then goes into an insulated aluminum box, and along with the CTD in the bag go four chemical hand warmers. “I buy hundreds of those every year. The hand warmers are cheap, simple, readily available, easy to ship, not dangerous goods, and, used as directed, they work.” They keep the temperature inside the bag to 8 or 9 degrees Celsius for 8 to 10 hours. The catch is keeping the hand warmers warm, because they generate water vapor in the heat reaction and can freeze up themselves.


Canadian Rangers tie an RBRconcerto CTD to a downrigger line, taking the CTD out of its sack and aluminum box where chemical hand warmers keep it warm. Photo credit: Mike Dempsey


In Reflections of Canada, a book concerning research opportunities at Canada’s 150th anniversary, 2017, Carmack writes persuasively about continuing Arctic Ocean research, and lays out these facts defining the uniqueness of the region: the Arctic Ocean is the smallest of the Earth’s five divisions of the global ocean; it makes up just 1% of the world’s ocean volume, and just 3% of the world’s ocean surface area, yet twenty of the hundred longest rivers in the world drain into it – the Arctic Ocean accommodates 10% of global river runoff; and that fate of geography sets the conditions that allow ice to cover its surface.

Williams explains that the northward-flowing Atlantic water “has enough heat to melt the sea ice continuously, but it’s not at the surface because of the freshwater that overlies it.” It’s largely because of Arctic river inflow that the Atlantic water sits at about 400 m. Consequently, the surface fresh layer is a barrier between the warm salty water and the ice.

The focus of the CROW data, Williams says, is “exploration of the Kitikmeot Region and what we think should be the main processes that lead to biological productivity.”

“One of the things that began our study of the region is that when you look down using visible satellite images, you see there are places where the ice melts earlier than everywhere else, narrow channels or straits, gaps between islands. The ice is thinner there. When we see that we think that looks like tidal mixing bringing warm water in and causing mixing and the ice to melt earlier.” These are places, Williams explains, where mixing brings nutrients to the surface and enhances the productivity.

The CROW data tries to get at these narrow passages, but based on Rangers’ knowledge of the sea ice, they can only get so close. “Rangers know those locations have thin ice. All these places are places that the local people know about. They are places where you don’t go in the winter because the sea ice is thin and people can die.”

In this, and many other ways, the Rangers confirm what the researchers think are the active processes. Williams says, “They confirm in their way what we think should be there. So over time we can build a scientific picture that complements their traditional knowledge picture.”

‘You get some data one year and then you get some data the next year. … You start to build a picture of the ocean based on this sparse data. It’s exploration for sure!’Bill Williams

With improved technology and more knowledge to draw from, this research is much like oceanography was back before GPS and satellite data, when oceanographers would come home from a scientific cruise, then plot up the handfuls of data they collected that geographically span an ocean basin, and try to determine a pattern. Williams says, “The wintertime data is hard to get, and this is practically the only way we can get it. You get some data one year and then you get some data the next year. … You start to build a picture of the ocean based on this sparse data. It’s exploration for sure!” He also notes, “You always get surprises. You think the ocean is going to be this way, and it may largely be, but there are usually other things going on as well.”

CROW has never been funded as a program through DFO. It’s funded mostly by DND, who support the Rangers and their expeditions, and from DFO support comes in pieces from other projects. Williams jokes that he runs CROW off the side of his desk. He says, “So far, CROW is not a monitoring program. It’s a program that collects some data whenever they go out, which is usually once a year, in deep winter.”

The CROW team, past and present, all hope CROW will expand in the future. They see it as benefiting the science and the communities. Dempsey would like to get the Junior Rangers, a program for 12 to 18 year-olds run by the Rangers of each community, involved in CROW. He says, “in some communities, the Junior Rangers are a serious binding organization for the youth in the communities.”

Williams would like to expand DFO’s relationship with the Rangers, to do more regular sampling. He notes there are environmental technology programs in the north that are training people to do the type of ocean sampling CROW has been conducting.

Carmack says, “I think the next step is to come up with a concept that will tie all the communities together with common objectives and a means of communicating and linking, and that’s not easy.”

But really, Carmack’s view is much longer. He has a vision of ocean monitoring by locals of their own waters in a globally connected network that is what he calls, an antenna for climate change. For the North, his hope is that projects like CROW will become part of their oral tradition.

“It would be so neat,” Carmack reflects, “if the Ranger that is going out and collecting data that is relating to climate change and global change, comes home at night, and is sitting around the dinner table. His daughter is there, and she’s studying this thing in school. You can almost see this science go from the global scale right to the kitchen table.”

As to the importance of Arctic Ocean research, Carmack, quoting Shakespeare, warns, “Though she be but little; she is fierce!”

The DFO technicians who make CROW run are Jane Eert, Mike Dempsey, and Sarah Zimmerman, who, Eddy Carmack says, “have really taken it to heart and made it work.”