• Sonar scan of the sea floor
    Sonar scan of the sea floor (Photos courtesy Defence Research and Development Canada)

Massive “scours” caused by drifting icebergs scar the Arctic seabed. Some ruts are more than 25 metres wide and kilometres long, and may be hundreds of years old. Other images reveal large areas covered in pockmarks — possibly caused by gas deposits — reminiscent of a lunar landscape.

In August 2014, a team of scientists, engineers and navy personnel from Defence Research and Development Canada (the research arm of Canada’s Department of National Defence) captured these sonar images of nearly 30 square kilometres of seabed in the central Canadian Arctic’s Victoria Strait, a remote and often ice-covered underwater environment that has never been seen, far less charted.

The researchers, part of the 2014 Victoria Straight Expedition searching for Franklin’s lost ships HMS Terror and Erebus, used the aptly named Arctic Explorer, a torpedo-shaped autonomous underwater vehicle carrying the latest in military R&D equipment — a state-of-the-art synthetic aperture sonar (SAS) system. Originally designed to detect and classify underwater mines, it is able to survey for more than 18 hours before recharging, and creates ultra-high-resolution imagery over very large areas. DRDC produced these first images of a previously unmapped zone near the place where Sir John Franklin’s ships were abandoned almost 170 years ago.

Erebus, of course, was later found southeast of Victoria Strait, in Queen Maud Gulf, but what Arctic Explorer captured seems to conjure up an extraterrestrial world. In addition to huge scours and other geological formations, the team observed interesting physical phenomena involving internal waves of fresh water from melting sea ice, which travel slowly down through the salt water, causing sound to bend in such a way that the fresh water creates ghostly ripples in the sand. The frigid -1.5 C water of the Arctic Archipelago creates an ideal environment for sound propagation, contributing to unparalleled sonar image quality and range.

There is potential that these images and accompanying bathymetric data, which meets the standards of the International Hydrographic Organization, could be used with other data to create the first detailed charts of the area. The 2014 Victoria Straight Expedition highlighted the need to map and explore these waters, part of an Arctic region in which human activity is increasing. These challenges are inspiring Canadian industry, government and academia to develop technologies that can operate in one of the most difficult environments known to humankind.