The Northwest Passage’s most famous shipwrecks sit in these waters. Scientists are still finding out what else lies beneath.

By Chris Mooney, The Washington Post - August 17, 2017

QUEEN MAUD GULF, NUNAVUT, Canada — In 1846, in perilous seas to the north of here, the two steam-propelled ships of British explorer Sir James Franklin, the Erebus and the Terror, froze in the ice. It was the beginning of the end of the Franklin mission, in which more than 100 men perished in the cold despite the launch of scores of ships to try to rescue them – the greatest disaster in a long and troubled history of trying to uncover the Northwest Passage.

In the past several years, the Erebus and the Terror have been discovered beneath the waves – but not where the ships first got stuck. Rather, the vessels wound up in the relatively shallow waters of the Queen Maud Gulf region. It remains unclear how they got there: Perhaps the ships floated here, or perhaps they broke free and the straggling crew decided to operate them again.

Victoria Island in the Canadian Arctic, with Queen Maud Gulf at the lower left. (NASA)
Victoria Island in the Canadian Arctic, with Queen Maud Gulf at the lower left. (NASA)

The last voyage of Franklin’s vessels is one of many mysteries of this remote region. At just shy of 70 degrees North Latitude, it is largely unexplored and poorly charted – but it is growing busier, as sea ice recedes and ship traffic increases in the wake of climate change.

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With that increased human activity comes new environmental risks. And unless scientists, conservationists and governments understand the local ecosystem, they’ll struggle to protect it.

Enter the CCGS Amundsen, a Canadian Coast Guard vessel that partners with scientists organized by the ArcticNet consortium at the Université Laval in Quebec City to conduct research. On board the Amundsen last week, two journalists from The Washington Post observed as scientists studied the little-known body of water through a range of scientific devices – trawling nets, water profilers, recovering and redeploying research buoys, and others.

“The Queen Maud Gulf and the Kitikmeot as a whole was designated as a ‘mare incognita’; it means very little is known of this place,” said Gerald Darnis, a researcher with the Université Laval who coordinates the Kitikmeot Marine Ecosystems Study, a project devoted to better understanding the region. (Kitikmeot refers to a larger region of the Canadian territory of Nunavut that includes the gulf.)

It’s crucial to find out what lives in the gulf, and how its waters flow, not just to preserve the Franklin wrecks but also to protect the larger ecosystem as ice retreats and ship traffic through the Northwest Passage becomes more commonplace, said Darnis and Cindy Grant, a researcher at the Université Laval studying the gulf from the CCGS Amundsen.

“There’s many risks associated with their presence, for sure. Pollution, and they could have some accident,” Grant said of ships crossing the gulf. There is also the fear that passing ships could introduce invasive species when they dump their ballast water, affecting the gulf’s ecology, she said.

The most catastrophic possibility would be an oil spill, with limited capacity for a cleanup or a quick response.

The waters here are very shallow, sometimes as little as 20 meters deep or less. That’s what seems to foster an unusual ecosystem that doesn’t have many fish or large mammals, such as whales and seals, but teems with life on the seafloor.

In one of their many scientific assays in the gulf aboard the Amundsen, scientists used a box core – a large, heavy metal device that slams into the ocean floor and scoops up a thick cube of mud to gather data. When the core was hauled back onto the ship, the surface of the sample – presenting an intact slice of the seafloor about two square feet in size – teemed with colorful Arctic starfish, worms and small shrimp.

These seafloor organisms – so-called benthic life – are setting a record in this area, Grant said.

“For benthic biodiversity, it could be considered as a hot spot in the Arctic,” she said. “If we compare data that we collected for the two last years, we found more than 300 different taxa, only in the Kitikmeot region. And it’s more than all other regions for the Canadian Arctic.”

But scientists still don’t know why life in the Queen Maud Gulf is configured in this way. They have only been studying it intensively for a handful of years.

Research and sampling are underway at and around the Franklin ship wrecks, but it is being carried out by the government agency Parks Canada, which has an underwater research team, Darnis said. The researchers affiliated with ArcticNet, however, are analyzing the data that Parks Canada gathers near the wrecks. (Other partners in the Kitikmeot Marine Ecosystems Study include the W. Garfield Weston Foundation and Québec-Océan.)

“The divers, they go on the wrecks, but they need also an image of what’s happening around the wreck, and we can provide that with what we do on the ship,” Darnis said.

The shallow waters may help define the unique nature of the gulf, but they also make it risky for shipping traffic if navigators aren’t careful in the often poorly or inadequately charted waters.

Yet there’s little doubt more ships will be taking this route. The Northwest Passage’s so-called northern route, which is about 5 degrees Latitude further toward the Pole, is more likely to be filled with ice. The gulf, on the other hand, can be more hospitable – there was little ice to be seen while the CCGS Amundsen was there.

“It’s one of the important connections,” Darnis said of the gulf. “It’s one of the main ways now to cross from east to west.”

As if to underscore the point, while the Amundsen was in the region it crossed paths with a U.S. Coast Guard vessel, the Cutter Maple, which was in the midst of doing its own Northwest Passage route, between Sitka, Alaska and Baltimore. The Amundsen supplied the U.S. ship with some extra fuel and food to provide a buffer on the long journey ahead of them.

“It’s really an extremely remote place, and you’ve seen a few boats coming, some needed help,” Darnis said. “And well, the Amundsen was there because we were doing science. But otherwise it would have taken days for another boat to come for a rescue. And in days, the impact can be extreme.”