13 August 2012
Brevoort Island, Smith Sound, 78˚ 41’ N, 74˚ 07’ W
In 2009, after a particularly blustery trip to Cape Baird, Ellesmere Island, I wrote “The problem with weather stations is that in order for them to be of any interest, you have to put them in quite inhospitable spots.” Brevoort Island is no different. Located at the entrance to Alexandra Fjord and its comparatively lush shorelines and well-fed walrus, Brevoort is exposed, barren and generally unremarkable, but it retains a small amount of charm by way of its size. It’s only about 200m wide, and perhaps 400m long, just right to say “Look, there’s a nice little island.”
This little island was our destination as we departed by helicopter from the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen from approximately mid-way down Alexandra Fjord. We flew about 25 nautical miles to the island and circled it once to look for other visitors. Much to our surprise we spotted two polar bears wandering across the south end of the island. It was great to see them. I love polar bears. But, I prefer to be a safe distance where I might see them coming. Brevoort’s topography is somewhat folded such that there are a lot of ridges and ledges to hide behind as you sneak up on scientists. The already small island was feeling much smaller. However, they clearly did not like the noise of the approaching helicopter and were running off towards the south end of the island when we last saw them. We hoped that they had left, as we landed to service the weather station.
Don, the pilot, shut down the helicopter. Near silence; it’s eerily quiet when you shut down the engines, especially when you’ve been on an icebreaker – there is always some noise there, even if it’s just the generator running the electrical system. Ron, the electrical tech, Don and I got out with only the sound of the breeze swirling around us.
“Now, you’re not allowed to get eaten by a polar bear.” – said the chief scientist, after the birth of my first child. I have always thought this to be sage advice. We could not *see* the bears, but we knew they were somewhere nearby – it felt like a suspense movie. So, I proceeded to try to refurbish the weather station like a pit crew at a car race. But, time passed and no sign was seen of the large local inhabitants. No black noses poking out over rocks, no furry glimpses of off-white, none. So, we… was it ‘we’? Ron’s somewhat an old hand at this, I think he was less concerned… we relaxed a bit and stopped looking around every few minutes. I believe this must be a survival instinct. If we as humans allow our concerns about predation to paralyze us, we might fail to act, and subsequently starve. Besides, we did have Don standing watch with a shotgun – possibly useless against a charging bear, but better than my screwdriver.
Since it was bolted to the island with ¾” rock bolts on the three feet of the tripod and the three stabilizing guy-wires, the weather station was in excellent physical condition after its three years of operation. It would appear that the bears had not bothered with it, as the more fragile pieces had not been broken, bent or outright removed. Unlike the situation north at Cape Baird, the station was also in good shape electrically – no wires were chewed-through by arctic hare or foxes. As such, our job at Brevoort Island was simplified to five tasks: get the data card, replace the sensors, upgrade the system to enable satellite data transmission capability, put in a new set of batteries and confirm correct operation.
The most difficult step was the addition of the modem to transmit to the iridium satellite network. The modem and extra electronics were mounted to a data-logger project board, so while still involved, it was simpler to replace the board and all the electronics inside the large plastic housing instead of trying to add the new electronics to the system already in place. The Brevoort station has a modest set of sensors to measure wind speed and direction, temperature, relative humidity, and pressure. The wind monitor was very convenient to replace, as there is a locator ring on the station mast which allowed the refurbished unit to slip right on and automatically line-up with the locator pin retaining the heading established during the original installation. The heading was confirmed by a quick check with a handheld GPS. The new temperature and humidity was inserted into the existing radiation shield, and the new pressure sensor was already on the data-logger board as attached. The addition of the new battery pair was quickly done also, as Ron had made up the box to require very limited effort at the site: simply wire the site’s solar panel to the box and plug the pre-wired cable into the data-logger to provide 12V of power.
The final step was to power-up the station, connect to the data-logger with a laptop and confirm proper operation of the station. All sensors were confirmed to be working as expected, and we stayed connected long enough to get confirmation of the first iridium data transfer. With that final test concluded, we packed up our gear and got in the helicopter. The whole operation was over in about two hours, but it was nice to be finished, back in the helicopter, and underway without anyone having been eaten.
After lift-off, we circled the island looking to see if the bears had stayed nearby. We saw no sign of them. However, we did have the good fortune of seeing a small pod of narwhal; four, resting at the surface just off shore to the southwest. In the end, it was a very successful mission: an efficient refit of the weather station, bear presence without incident, and a narwhal sighting. Nice. Maybe Brevoort Island isn’t such a bad place at all.
Dave Riedel, Sidney, BC, Canada