Fjords of the High Arctic

A few weeks ago, I was reading a book about glaciology recently when a sentence caught my eye.  Many advances in our understanding of how glaciers developed and transformed our world during the last ice age came from studying the Canadian landscape.  In particular:

A benchmark example [of paleo ice sheet reconstruction] was the compilation of the first Glacial Map of Canada in 1959, followed by its update in 1968, by the Geological Survey of Canada, based on painstaking aerial photograph and field mapping by its officers on a map sheet by map sheet basis after the completion of the aerial photograph coverage for the whole country in the 1950s.

This caught my eye, because I knew that my Grandpa on my Dad’s side of the family was a pilot who flew a lot of aerial surveys for the Canadian government in the late 50s.  I mentioned this to my Dad, just thinking he’d say, “gee, that’s cool”, and move on.  Apparently that triggered something in him though, because a few days later my email inbox was filled with a treasure trove of old family photos that I had never seen before.  In recent years I have also developed an interest in Arctic coastal geomorphology, so this discovery scratched a couple of itches for me.

One of the photos was taken above Alexandra Fjord on Ellesmere Island, which is insanely far north (78°N!):

Wolverine CAMERA
Alexandra Fjord, Ellesmere Island.  Photo copyright B.G. Pearson.

The cool thing is that when I went into Google Earth, I was able to snoop around and actually to find the same vantage point.  To my surprise, it seems like the glaciers there haven’t changed much since my grandfather was there in 1957:

googleEarth
Alexandra Fjord today, seen in Google Earth.

However, Dad pointed out that perhaps the glacier at the front hasn’t changed, but that the ice field behind it has shrunk.  He probably has a point there…

Wolverine CAMERA
So pristine!  Photo copyright B.G. Pearson.
Wolverine CAMERA
My Grandpa’s airplane on the right hand side.  Photo copyright B.G. Pearson.

Why was he actually up there, and what were they surveying?  A series of radar transponders were set up across northern Canada so that the airplanes could precisely triangulate their positions .  Based out of Ottawa, my Grandpa and his colleagues carried out many long flights between remote destinations A newspaper article from 1957 describes the tremendous undertaking that mapping the entire Canadian Arctic was, apparently the world’s most ambitious aerial survey operation at the time:

SEVEN-YEAR JOB: Rockcliffe Squadron to Complete Mapping
Monday, March 25, 1957

“Planes from the RCAF’s 408 Photo Squadron at Rockcliffe Airport will fly to within 450 miles of the North Pole this Spring to complete the geodetic survey of Canada which it started seven years ago.”

“Using the huge USAF base at Thule, Greenland, and RCAF’s own base at Resolute Bay, both well within the Arctic Circle, the planes will criss-cross approximately 400,000 square miles of Arctic wasteland to produce reference points for the accurate mapping of Canada.”

“This year’s aerial mapping mileage will bring over 3,000,000 square miles – approximately 90 percent – of Canadian territory accurately surveyed by the Air Force. When the 300 men of the squadron return to base here about July 1, they will have completed the world’s greatest aerial survey operation.”

SHORAN.-Schematic-by-Year
Survey points in the Canadian Arctic from the 1950s.  My Grandpa flew some of the northernmost missions.

While the mapping operation may have been motivated by a Cold War-era push to map Canada’s north for defense purposes, the operation was also of great scientific benefit.  In addition to providing a wealth of useful data for glaciologists, the measurements also provided important insights into other fundamental geophysical questions.  For instance, the earth is not a sphere, but rather an oblate spheroid, or something like a squashed rugby ball.  But even then, gravity is weird and complicated, so the rugby ball comparison only takes you so far, and precise measurements are necessary to figure out all of the actual irregularities in Earth’s shape.

Measurements like these have many applications, including for estimating sea level rise rates.  By understanding how the Canadian Arctic is rebounding in response to deglaciation, scientists can better answer Tricky Questions About Sea Level Rise there.

One of my favourite stories from the 1957 article involved some of the corrections that were made to previous maps:

“Throughout the … programme, many positions believed to be accurate were found to be in error. In 1956, for example, Prince of Wales Island (in which the North Magnetic Pole was then located) was found to be three miles further south than was indicated on the map.”

“Although they didn’t possess any supernatural strength to move mountains, from such discoveries as this, the members of the 408 Photographic Squadron did, facetiously, claim the ability to move islands.”

I would thus like to think that all my research on islands is simply carrying on a Pearson family tradition!  My Dad (a civil engineer) also worked in the Arctic during the 1980s, constructing artificial islands in the Beaufort Sea.  That’s a story for another time, though!

Speaking of Pearson family traditions, I can see that my Grandpa also had a clear eye for photographic composition, a gift that my Dad quite strongly inherited:

Wolverine CAMERA
Airship on some remote runway in the far Canadian north.  Photo copyright B.G. Pearson.

Another reasons I was so delighted by these photos is because one of my favourite painters, Lawren Harris, also spent a lot of time in the Canadian Arctic. I have always felt drawn to his dramatic mountain landscapes capped with snow, and nary a tree for thousands of miles.  The mountains of the far north have a particular shape to them, which seems unique compare to most of the mountains I have seen with my own eyes.

mountThule
Mount Thule, Bylot Island, by Lawren Harris, one of my favourite painters.  He had a very unique view of the same Arctic landscapes my Grandpa used to fly over.

I made it as far north as Lofoten in Norway (68°N), and have flown over parts of the Arctic on transatlantic summer flights, but have never actually set foot on those rugged and remote hills.  Something for my bucket list!

sentinelAlexandraBay
One more of Alexandra Fjord from space, because I can’t get enough of the staggering beauty of these landscapes.  [Source: Sentinel 2 L1C on July 17, 2019]

Sand: Barra, Scotland

A few weeks ago, I shared some sand that my dad brought back from the Butt of Lewis.  On that same trip, he and my mom went to visit the island of Barra, where her family originated from before emigrating to eastern Canada in the 1770s.

Halfway through their holiday, I received an excited text message from my dad: “Tell me – the whole island seems like grey granite, so where does the white sand come from? (In fact all the west side beaches are white sand.) Is it coral?”

Eager for a distraction from my work, I did a quick lit review. The consensus seems that indeed, the white sand on the beaches has almost nothing to do with the gneiss found on the rest of the island.  In essence, it seems as though most of the original sand was bulldozed there by glaciers during the last ice age or brought there by meltwater as they retreated.  Then over the course of the past few thousand years, shell fragments have accumulated and overwhelmed the native glacial sand, making up 7.5% to 82.9% of the total sand.  This results in the beautiful white beaches that you see today (Jehu & Craig, 1924; Goodenough & Merritt, 2007).

This might be my favourite sample of sand that I have analyzed yet- it is incredibly shelly, and every photo reveals beautiful new shapes and patterns. I think I will just let the sand speak for itself:

BarraHotel_000018
When you zoom out, it doesn’t look like much…
BarraHotel_000000
…but zooming in reveals all sorts of interesting shell fragments with different structures and colours.

BarraHotel_000001

BarraHotel_000002
I particularly love the piece in the middle of this photo: it almost looks like a piece of glazed pottery.

BarraHotel_000004

I love the spiral shells.  Last summer I read a really cool book about the evolution of mollusks and seashells: Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells.  Worth a read if you like this sort of thing!

BarraHotel_000005
I’m really quite curious as to what the red and white fragment in the upper left quadrant is. It looks like a piece of octopus tentacle, although I know it can’t be!
BarraHotel_000007
Purple is my favourite colour, so I love the shade of the fragment in the lower left corner. It actually looks a lot like the coralline algae we saw in my photographs of sand from Archipel Glenans.  I wonder if something similar is present offshore of Barra… The cylindrical fragment on the right side makes me think of a Roman column.

BarraHotel_000008

BarraHotel_000009

BarraHotel_000012
This one might be favourite- I zoomed in to 40x magnification to take a closer look.  The patterns of the white bubbles are beautiful- I am very curious whether that is a shell fragment or actually some sort of igneous rock left over from Scotland’s volcanic days

BarraHotel_000013

BarraHotel_000014

BarraHotel_000017
I love the iridescence of the shell at mid-right, and the vivid pink streak in the top left quadrant.  So many cool shapes and colours!

I hope you enjoyed those as much as I did.  I just wish I knew more about ecology so that I had a better idea of what we were actually seeing here!

Sources:

Goodenough, K., & Merritt, J. (2007). The Outer Hebrides: a landscape fashioned by geology. Scottish Natural Heritage.

Jehu, T., & Craig, R. (1924). XXII.—Geology of the Outer Hebrides. Part I.—The Barra Isles. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 53(2), 419-441.

Sand: Ardrossan, Scotland

I recently paid a visit to my grandmother in Glasgow, Scotland.  She is 94 1/2 years old and is still a delight to be with.  Since she is living in a retirement home now and doesn’t get out much these days, I rented a car and we went for a drive together down the coast to Troon:

On our way back to Glasgow I pulled over the car in Ardrossan and grabbed a handful of sand from the beach there:

NearTroonScotland_000001.jpg
Sand from the beach at Ardrossan, Scotland.  It appears to be fine, well-rounded quartz sand.  Note the beautiful red tint of the grains.

When I showed my dad this photo, he pointed out that the pink sand grains resembled the red sandstones found in houses and buildings all across Glasgow, the city where he grew up.  When I looked into it further, it seems that many of the sandstone bricks used in facades across the city indeed came from Ayrshire, where this beach was located.  This is backed up by a geological map of the Firth of Clyde, which shows our little beach  comfortably inside the red sandstone zone.  A delightful convergence of sediment and architecture!

Scotland A 038.jpg
The Kelvingrove Gallery, one of my favourite places in Glasgow.  If you ever find yourself in Glasgow I highly recommend it- it’s free! Note the beautiful red sandstone facade.

That’s one of my favourite things about this field- there always seems to be new and interesting connections back to other things that I love!

Scotland C 055.jpg
Majestic highland cows in Pollock County Park, Glasgow.  Note their beautiful red sandstone facades.

Sources:

Jardine, W. G. (1986). The geological and geomorphological setting of the estuary and Firth of Clyde. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Section B: Biological Sciences, 90, 25-41.

Sand: The Butt of Lewis, Scotland

This week our sand comes from the delightfully-named Butt of Lewis, the northernmost point of the Isle of Lewis.  Lewis is part of the Outer Hebrides, an archipelago off the west coast of Scotland.  My parents visited there this summer as part of a trip to Barra, a neighbouring island and the ancestral home of my mom’s family.  My dad brought back a little bag of sand from the beach at Ness:

ButtOfLewis_000006.jpg
A beautiful mix of what appears to be mainly carbonate sand from shells and what I presume to be material eroded from the abundant gneiss and glacial deposits on the island.

The most important question here is obviously not about the sand though, but rather, why they called this place the “Butt of Lewis”.  After half an hour of creative and persistent googling, I couldn’t find anything, though.  My guess is just that it’s because it’s at the very back end of the island.  But also quite windy?

buttOfLewisWeather
Live, from the windy Butt of Lewis… [Source: BBC Weather]