The football field-size CCGS Amundsen, breaking through the icy waters of the Northwest Passage, came to a halt. Traversing one of the most unexplored regions of Earth's oceans, the Canadian coast guard vessel found itself amid ice 10 feet thick. It reversed course, turned 30 degrees, and proceeded forward again, trembling along the way.
This icebreaker's objective was to carry scientists into little-charted seas high in the Canadian Arctic. There they planned to map regions of the seafloor at high resolution and pull up a sample that could reveal what happened here at the close of the last ice age, 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.
But the dilemma the scientists on this vessel faced had less to do with ancient history than the near future. By helping to map a region that's only now becoming navigable, thanks to climate change, they're part of a broader opening of one of Earth's most untouched environments to a growing volume of ship traffic.
It is perhaps the central irony of their mission: While they were conducting research that could help shed light on current environmental challenges, the resulting maps could also help open the door to more tourism, shipping and other forms of commerce that could damage some of the globe's most pristine waters.
"We as scientists can get into areas we've never been before," said Mark Furze, a geoscientist at MacEwan University in Alberta who was traveling aboard the Amundsen for the research. "It comes with a cost."
For half a millennium, explorers have tried to find passages through the Canadian Arctic islands that connect the Atlantic and Pacific. But only in recent years, as climate change has driven back the ice, have a growing number of ships started making the crossing regularly, with a record of 33 full Northwest Passage transits in 2017, as well as many shorter sea excursions. These include not just scientists and adventurers but also government vessels assessing a new area of strategic importance and, increasingly, for-profit entities.
Scientists have long conceded that climate change has benefits along with its costs, and from an economic perspective, the opening of the Northwest Passage could be construed as one of those benefits. For countries with vast northern regions, most prominently Russia and Canada, the thawing of the Arctic creates new opportunities to exploit a wealth of natural resources and to host new activities, such as tourism and shipping.
Yet exploration, and human movement into new areas, has always brought with it serious drawbacks: the spread of devastating diseases like smallpox; the introduction of damaging invasive species; and subsequent extinctions of native forms of life.
The difference is that the Northwest Passage was, until recently, simply too difficult and deadly for explorers to leave much of an imprint – aside from a number of wrecked vessels left over the centuries.
"I think it's, in some ways, quite amazing that this area is opening up," said Anna Pienkowski, also a MacEwan university professor and a lead researcher aboard the CCGS Amundsen. "Because you can then have vessels running through. But whether it's all a good thing, I don't know. I think we should explore it with care."
Furze had boarded the Amundsen in early August along with two Washington Post journalists – helicoptering from the small Inuit community of Resolute Bay, a central launching point in the Canadian Arctic islands.
Furze was anticipating a momentous day. He was not only headed to a never-before-explored research site, known as 5.10, but also was being reunited with his wife, Pienkowski. The two were part of a team of investigators on a large research grant focused on mapping the Arctic seafloor.
The 300-foot-long Amundsen is a Canadian government vessel that houses dozens of scientists affiliated with ArcticNet, a research consortium based out of the Université Laval in Quebec City. Multiple laboratories sit in cargo containers around the ship, and cranes on the foredeck lift scientific instruments overboard.
Life is punctuated by the constant chirping of sonar equipment and loudspeaker messages explaining when it's safe to smoke on deck. There are regular callouts over the loudspeakers for walrus or polar bear sightings.
The close of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago, was a time of rapid climate change, as is the present. By understanding how that unfolded, Pienkowski and Furze hoped to derive lessons about climate change's impact now.
Site 5.10 held interest because, they believed, it was where two vast sheets of ice finally separated and opened up the Northwest Passage as an ocean channel in the first place. Understanding more about what happened there could offer valuable insights into what might be happening today as ice recedes in Antarctica.
The scientists' goal was to extract from the seafloor a long cylinder of mud, called a core, whose sediments would provide a kind of time capsule of the region's history.
"This is our prime site; we've been trying to get there for years and years and years," said Pienkowski, who had gotten within four miles of the site last year before the ice proved too difficult to traverse.
That evening, just hours from the location, it still wasn't clear whether they would make it. Furze, Pienkowski and fellow scientists gathered in the Amundsen's mapping room and looked at a large screen showing the ship's current location – moving out over little-known waters.
As the data flowed in – under the ship is a device known as a "multibeam" sonar system that sends out sound pulses in all directions and records their echoes – the screen captured a wide stretch of the seafloor and its contours, providing different colors for different depths.
"There will be a lot of people interested in this map for a whole range of things," Furze said.
The scientists continued studying the map until the loudspeaker crackled: "Mark and Anna, please come to the wheelhouse."
The ship's helicopter, which had been sent out to reconnoiter ice conditions, had identified a clear passage to Site 5.10, Capt. Claude Lafrance informed the scientists.
"The universe has conspired . . ." Pienkowski began when she heard the news.
"Last time I was up here last year, I just wanted to cry," said Pienkowski to the group. "Now, I'll cry from happiness."
"Well, we've got to get the core yet," Furze said.
The CCGS Amundsen was traveling the Northwest Passage in 2017 at a time when its waters were, very likely, seeing the most major ship traffic in all of human history.
Groping blindly, European and especially British explorers began trying to map this seascape beginning in the late 1500s – leading to a series of small advances, smattered with setbacks and tragedies, over centuries.
They brought ships that were too small; lacked sufficiently warm clothing for their sailors; didn't keep them busy enough in winter; had men, rather than dogs, haul their sleds; and more.
But as Arctic ice receded, and shipping became the modern behemoth it is today, transits are at last becoming possible.
The record of 33 complete ship passages between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans this summer crushed the prior record of 20, set in 2012.
Tourism ventures are leading the way. In two successive trips in 2016 and 2017, the enormous Crystal Serenity carried a total of about 1,500 passengers through, each paying a minimum of nearly $22,000. Three additional ships also carried passengers through in 2017.
"In terms of cruise ships, more and more are going in the Arctic," says Denis Hains, the hydrographer general of Canada.
In the last few years, large-scale shipping activities have also emerged. In 2016 and this year, ice-strengthened shipping vessels operated by the Dutch firm Royal Wagenborg have carried loads of aluminum anodes from China to Quebec through the Northwest Passage, according to a survey of passage transits by the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge.
In 2017, a large Chinese icebreaking vessel, dubbed Xuelong or "Snow Dragon," also crossed the passage as part of a government-sponsored research trip that appears to have been partly focused on exploring new shipping routes.
"It opened up a new sea lane for China," reported the state-controlled People's Daily. China is already shipping through the "Northeast Passage," which runs along the coast north of Russia and has less ice than the Canadian archipelago.
"You start putting those individual pieces together, and it starts pointing to the thin edge of a brand-new change," said Robert Huebert, an expert on the Canadian Arctic at the University of Calgary.
Experts on shipping say that, although the Northwest Passage is becoming more navigable, it's still too icy to use in all but the warmest months. That means it cannot yet support a large-scale resetting of trade, said Tim Keane, the Arctic operations manager of Fednav, a Canadian bulk shipping company with decades of Arctic experience. In 2014, Fednav sent a ship through the entirety of the Northwest Passage carrying nickel concentrate to China from a large mine in Deception Bay in far northern Quebec.
"That made sense because of the time of the year we were going and the relative distances involved," Keane said. "When we returned, we came through the Panama Canal, because it was that much later in the year."
Still, the example underscores that newly exploited Arctic resources will need to get to market through whatever means available. There are also oil and gas resources in the Canadian Arctic. In Grays Bay along the passage, the government of the Canadian territory of Nunavut (which contains most of the Arctic islands) and the Kitikmeot Inuit Association have proposed a deep-water port and road project that would allow diamonds and other minerals to be shipped out to the north.
That would further increase commercial use of these waters.
Yet this growth in commerce poses major risks in a sensitive area that contains unique ecosystems and also serves as a kind of natural museum, containing sunken ships and other artifacts from centuries of European exploration.
The more ships that travel through the area, the more often they may burn heavy fuel oil and increase the load of "black carbon" particles, which can fall on snow and ice and increase its rate of melting. Meanwhile, simply bringing ships into the area from remote destinations raises the risk of importing invasive species.
Any accident risks even worse despoilment if ships leak oil, gas, chemicals or other substances.
The danger became apparent in 2010, when the 4,376-ton Clipper Adventurer, a ship then registered in the Bahamas, ran aground on a rock shoal protruding from the seafloor. The collision damaged some of the ship's ballast and fuel tanks, and as a result the vessel dumped pollution into the pristine waters of the Coronation Gulf, far to the south of Resolute.
One hundred twenty-eight passengers and 69 crew were stranded – until the CCGS Amundsen itself came to the rescue. It arrived two days later and had to engage in additional careful mapping of the area to safely reach the other ship.
Later it was determined that the Clipper Adventurer had plotted a course based on soundings from 1965, made by a single ship using older technologies. Canadian government transportation investigators found that warnings had been issued about the danger, but the vessel was not aware of them.
A subsequent legal dispute was ultimately resolved in Canada's favor – the ship's owners had to pay nearly half a million Canadian dollars for environmental damage caused by the grounding and the leaking tanks.
This could be just the beginning. "The increasing of the traffic into the area, definitely we will have more search and rescue cases in future years," said Lafrance, the Amundsen captain who was first mate during the Clipper Adventurer rescue.
And any accident would likely result in the need for Canadian coast guard, patrolling an enormous region, to travel from afar to conduct an extremely difficult rescue operation.
"It's the lack of infrastructure, search-and-rescue response, environmental response, salvage, aids to navigation, ports even," said Lawson Brigham, a shipping industry expert at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, of the risk involved in using the Passage.
After splitting through a field of multicolored, puddle-strewn sea ice – riding up on top of the bigger pieces before crunching down and severing them – the Amundsen reached the key region, Site 5.10. The ship was now over a roughly 650-foot-deep depression in the ocean floor where, Pienkowsi and Furze believed, two massive ice sheets, called the Laurentide and the Innuitian, finally disconnected from one another as the ice age ended.
Then the mapping began. The researchers used the ship's sonar technology to find a region of deep, thick mud, undisturbed by the scours of ancient icebergs. Then, they dressed in hazard suits and hit the ship's foredeck.
It was past 10 p.m. as a dozen scientists and Coast Guard personnel assembled for the coring operation. A 35-foot-long missile called a piston corer would plunge under its own weight all the way to the seafloor, land with great force and suck in a long, thick cylinder of mud.
Pienkowski led the research, strapped to the side of the ship by a cable so she wouldn't fall into the frigid seas.
The weather worsened as it got later, with wind and rain coming in and leaving a chill, even though it was summer and the sun never set. They would have only one shot at this.
The twin missiles plunged into the water, and the cable spun as they gathered momentum. Some 15 minutes later, they hauled up the core, hosed it down and screwed it open. Out came the mud in a long plastic tube.
The scientists sawed it off at about five feet. Then they did the same with a second length. It appeared they had about eight feet of mud in all – which would be subjected to chemical analysis, back home, to determine how old the sediments were.
But there was one key detail that gave away the probable news – small bits of gravel in the mud, which Furze said indicated debris dropped to the seafloor by ancient icebergs. It was confirmation they had found a place that would tell them the story of what happened here more than 10,000 years ago and, perhaps, hold lessons for what is happening now.
"It's kind of happy relief, to be honest," Pienkowski said.
With the equipment recovered, the Amundsen turned south to pursue more scientific ventures – including ecological studies that would help determine what organisms live in these waters as they undergo dramatic changes.
"As a scientist, that's fascinating; it's incredible to be able to watch that and observe that," said Furze of the dramatic changes as the Arctic's ice melts. "At the same time, knowing what's causing it, is quite disturbing and quite sad."