Mapping the Fabled Northwest Passage

When Sarah Porter, a fourth-year student at the Marine Institute, was offered the opportunity to map the Northwest Passage this summer, she jumped at the chance.

“I was on a work term with the Centre for Applied Ocean Technology when my supervisor, Kirk Regular, offered me the opportunity to partner with the Canadian Hydrographic Service (CHS) to survey through the Northwest Passage using their new shallow water multibeam system, Norbit,” said Ms. Porter. “As a student, I was so fortunate to have been trusted with such an incredible project.”

The fabled passage, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Canadian Arctic, is one of the most unexplored areas of the ocean floor. Indeed, the last nautical chart production for the Northwest Passage is dated 1957.

As an ocean mapping and bachelor of technology student, Ms. Porter was well suited for the task. During the 28-day expedition, her job was to mobilize the Norbit system on a small boat and collect data during stops in Pond Inlet, Bellot Strait, and Cambridge Bay.

“To take a system, get familiar with it and its software, take it to the North and to survey areas that are unknown, with no charts, was an incredible experience,” she said.

Ms. Porter hopes the data she collected will be published at some point—and used to benefit boating activity in the North.

When the Northwest Passage was discovered in the mid-1800s, it was expected to provide a major shipping shortcut from Europe to Asia. Until recently, however, the presence of thick, year-round sea ice made the route virtually impassable—and extremely dangerous.

Today, however, average annual temperatures in the Arctic are warming, and the sea ice is melting. As a result, open water in the Northwest Passage is beginning earlier in the year and lasting longer. Although the passage is still not practical or safe for commercial shipping, there has been a recent increase in “destinational” traffic—small boats, private yachts, and occasional cruise ships.

As the ice continues to melt in the Northwest Passage, and vessel traffic continues to increase, sea floor mapping will play a crucial role—both for the safety of mariners and the health of the environment.

“I love the ocean and I really enjoy discovering the unknown underneath,” said Ms. Porter. “I think it’s crucial to know what our sea floor is all about.”

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