Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 28, No.12

March 18, 2004


Oceanographer in Arctic had to look out for polar bears

By Frank Kuin

Photo of Brion in the arctic

Denis Brion in the Western Arctic with the project icebreaker in the background.

Few Concordia researchers ever have to contend with polar bears in the course of their work, but for Denis Brion, looking out for these predators is part of the job.

Brion, a PhD student in Concordia’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, recently spent 43 days in the Arctic collecting sediment samples for a research project into the molecular structure of the organic matter on the ocean floor.

He joined over 40 other researchers on a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker in Franklin Bay in the Western Arctic for a frigid stint from late November to early January that included many polar bear sightings.

The research project into the sediment, initiated by Concordia Professor Yves Gélinas, is part of the Coastal Arctic Shelf Exchange Study (CASES), an international collection of studies examining the effects of global warming on the Arctic environment, led by Canada.

Global warming is expected to have profound effects on the Arctic marine ecosystem, Brion explained. It might lead to thinner ice, more plankton, more fish, and ultimately more organic matter on the sediment.

However, he said, “we don’t have data, so that’s the reason for the project.”

For Brion, an oceanographer who had done research on ships before, the Arctic conditions made for “the most hostile environment” he has had to deal with.

He and the other researchers collected ice, water and sediment samples for their respective studies in a five-by-five mile area around the wintering site of the ship, in temperatures that fell as low as –65 degrees Celsius with wind chill and with only a few hours of daylight every day.

What’s more, there were at least five polar bears roaming around in the area that were spotted on a regular basis. “We had to deal with bears every day,” Brion said.

The researchers went out on snowmobiles in small groups to one of four sampling sites, several hundred meters away from the safety of the icebreaker. The distance is necessary in order to collect clean samples, uncontaminated by the ship, he explained. “Even a little bit of oil is enough to contaminate the sampling.”

Each individual would have at least a knife for defense, while those licensed to do so could carry a shotgun for emergencies, Brion said. One person would look out for bears.

Polar bears can be difficult to spot in their natural environment, however. “If you see something a bit yellow or darker than white, it’s probably a bear, and if it’s moving, it’s a bear.”

On one occasion, a bear appeared as Brion’s group was pulling up a sample from a hole in the ice. The ship’s Inuit wildlife observer rushed over on his snowmobile and after some hesitation on the part of the animal, managed to scare it away.

Brion could collect his own sediment samples from a hole in the bottom of ship because at a depth of about 200 meters, there’s no contamination. He took a cooler full of samples back to Concordia. They are now in a freezer in the new science complex at the Loyola campus.

Brion will take “extractions” from his samples in the lab and analyze the different types of organic matter. He will then be able to characterize the molecules to get “fingerprints” of them, he said.

“We don’t know much about the impact of global warming on the sediment yet,” he concluded. “The ideal will be to go back in a few years and take samples again to be able to compare.”