Waking up on August 11, I peered outside my port-side window and found myself staring at a cliff face. This struck me as odd, considering I was on a ship travelling remote Arctic waters and had not seen land in a week. The cliff face was Somerset Island, and the ship was the CCGS Amundsen, a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker ship that doubles as a scientific research vessel during the summer months.
We were steaming through Bellot Strait, a narrow channel of water that separates the northernmost point in mainland North America, in Nunavut, from the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. It is one of the most difficult Northwest Passage routes due to fast-flowing currents, rapidly changing tides, and sea ice.
Our passage through Bellot Strait had marked the halfway point of our schedule, Leg 2b, on the Amundsen. I had boarded a week earlier in Resolute, Nunavut, a community of approximately 200 people. The ship was headed to Puvirnituq, Québec via the Northwest Passage. It was carrying 40 coast guard personnel, in addition to 40 scientists, who were conducting scientific research ranging from multibeam mapping to sediment coring — and in my case, microplastic sampling. The expedition was part of ArcticNet, a research consortium based at Université Laval in Québec City.
Microplastics are pieces of plastic ranging from a few millimetres in size down to the nanometric level. ‘Microplastics’ is a broad term that encompasses two subtypes: primary and secondary. Primary microplastics are particles that are manufactured on the scale of millimetres, like those used in facial scrubs; secondary microplastics are those that break down from larger pieces of litter, like water bottles or grocery bags. Microplastics are a harmful and persistent pollutant in marine ecosystems.
I was taking surface water, sediment, and zooplankton samples for a project led by my supervisor, Assistant Professor Chelsea Rochman of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, along with Dr. Liisa Jantunen of Environment and Climate Change Canada, Professor Miriam Diamond of the Department of Earth Sciences, and Professor Nathalie Tufenkji of McGill University. The purpose of the project was to quantify and identify the amount and types of microplastics in these samples from the Canadian Arctic.
The Northern Contaminants Program, which monitors contaminant exposure to wildlife species that make up the diets of northern Indigenous peoples, funded the project. The program had previously investigated plastic debris as a potential vector for these contaminants, but it had not yet monitored microplastics as contaminants in their own right.
Microplastics are easily consumed by aquatic-feeding organisms due to their small size and ubiquity. If ingested, microplastics can be both a physical and chemical hazard to wildlife due to organ damage and the transfer of toxic chemicals. There is also evidence of microplastics migrating into seafood. This contamination of meat is of particular concern for communities that rely heavily on seafood for sustenance, such as northern coastal communities.
While I had worked as a summer research student before, these positions had been limited to labs on campus. Working on a moving ship was different — the mandatory personal safety equipment went well beyond lab coats and closed-toe shoes.
When working on deck, we were required to wear steel-toe boots and hardhats. ‘Survival suits’ — bright orange jumpsuits that would keep us warm both on deck and in the water in case we fell in — were not mandatory but were usually needed due to the frigid Arctic wind. Even in the ship lab, safety rules differed from those on campus. All equipment, even plastic graduated cylinders, had to be strapped down with bungee cords, in case the ship rolled from large ocean swells or exceptionally thick sea ice.
My hours as a summer research student on campus often stretched beyond 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, but working hours on the ship were even more peculiar. The ship ran a tight schedule, and sampling stations had been predetermined months before. Despite this, the ship could arrive at a station hours late due to thick sea ice. Worse, it could arrive hours early — this meant that we had to be prepared to conduct sampling regardless of the time of day.
During busier days, I found myself sleeping in four-hour shifts. Despite the peculiar sleep schedule, waking up at 3:00 am to collect water samples was not difficult — the Arctic Sun did not dip below the horizon during that time of year.
My favourite activity to pass the time was watching the Amundsen break sea ice. The Amundsen is an Arctic Class 3 icebreaker, which means that it can operate in polar regions all year and plow through thick, multi-year sea ice. It would ram over the tops of large, metre-thick ice floes until they finally cracked under its weight, flipping over to reveal their turquoise-blue undersides, the colour a characteristic indicative of old age.
The additional benefit of watching sea ice break was the chance of spotting wildlife. We were lucky to spot several polar bears roaming the ice floes, including one that stood on its hind legs, looking directly at us.
Previous to this voyage, an investigation of microplastic pollution had not been conducted in the Canadian Arctic, and the presence of microplastics in this region will remain a mystery for a few more months. Due to transportation and weight constraints, we could not bring our samples home with us right away. They are packed safely away in the bow thruster room of the ship’s hull, and we will receive them when the ship returns to its home port of Québec City on October 12.
While the trip was visually breathtaking, and potentially a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for an undergraduate researcher, the possibility of finding microplastics in our samples is disheartening. It would support the fact that these particles are capable of long range transport — and into a region that is typically considered pristine.
Witnessing the kilometres of sea ice reminded me why Canada is nicknamed the Great White North. Sadly, this nickname may be outdated soon: current predictions suggest that summer Arctic sea ice may be non-existent by the middle of the 21st century. Given Canada’s history here, to permanently alter this region, whether through the melting of sea ice or the inundation of contaminants, would be devastating from both a scientific and cultural perspective.