Research engineers Emmett Gamroth, Alison Proctor, and Jeff Kennedy with University of Victoria’s Ocean Technology Lab pose with the lab’s autonomous underwater vehicle. The three are participating in the Parks Canada effort to locate Sir John Franklin’s lost ships. (Photo by UVic/Bluefin)
A team of engineers from the University of Victoria is heading to the Arctic to take part in Parks Canada’s latest initiative to locate the lost ships of the Franklin expedition.
This is the fourth season Parks Canada has led the search for HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, which disappeared during British explorer Sir John Franklin’s 1845 mission to chart the Northwest Passage and find a safe and reliable route from Europe to the Orient.
The expedition was to last three years, but after 18 months the vessels went missing along with the 129 men on board. Although traces of the expedition have been found, the ships’ final resting places remain unknown.
Three researchers from UVic’s Ocean Technology Lab will be using the lab’s autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to assist the Parks Canada team in its search. The torpedo-shaped AUV, which is equipped with a bathymetric sidescan sonar system to gather three-dimensional data, will enable the team to dramatically increase the size of the search area. “Driven by a propeller, [the AUV] can swim rapidly and efficiently and cover fairly large swaths of the seafloor,” says Colin Bradley, a mechanical engineer and director of the Ocean Technology Lab. “And onboard the vehicle is a sonar system that can map the seafloor in fairly large swaths to either side of the vehicle. So it’s an efficient way of using acoustic imagery to look at the seafloor, examine it, and try and determine any telltale signs of a wreck.”
The search will be concentrated in two areas: the Victoria Strait/Alexandra Strait region, where one of the vessels is thought to have foundered, and the southern region near O’Reilly Island, where Inuit oral tradition places one of the wrecks.
The UVic team will spend 12 to 14 hours a day on the water operating the AUV from a 5-metre boat launched daily from a Canadian Coast Guard vessel and a research vessel provided by the Arctic Research Foundation.
One of the challenges will be navigating the AUV in uncharted waters where the magnetic field is erratic, says Bradley. “The navigational system could be a little susceptible to the variability of the magnetic field. But that’s something that we’re going to have to try and determine in the early stages of the project and perhaps be a little bit more cautious in the first few days, the first week of the project, and uptake any great risks at that point.”
A map of the probable routes taken by HMS Erebus and HMS Terror during Franklin’s lost expedition. Disko Bay (5) to Beechey Island and around Cornwallis Island (1) in 1845. Beechey Island down Peel Sound between Prince of Wales Island (2) and Somerset Island (3) and the Boothia Peninsula (4), to near King William Island in 1846. (Wikimedia Commons, Finetooth, Kennonv, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency)
In 2010, the Parks Canada research team made international headlines when it located the HMS Investigator, one of the vessels that had been searching for the missing ships when she sank 155 years prior.
Searches by several ships off the east coast of Beechey Island in the years after the ships disappeared turned upthe first relics of the expedition, including the graves of three crewmen on the island as well as remnants of a winter camp.
A search in 1859 discovered a note left on King William Island with details about the expedition’s fate. Searches continued through much of the 19th century, but the missing ships were never located.
Parks Canada is expanding the scope of its investigation this year with new partners, vessels, and instrumentation to cover a larger area, and the search is being extended to four-six weeks rather than the six days of previous years.
Other collaborators include the Canadian Hydrographic Service, Canadian Space Agency, Canadian Ice Service, the Government of Nunavut, and Environment Canada.
To increase knowledge of the Arctic, the search effort includes the collection of data for the production of navigational charts and topographical maps in the Arctic and supporting marine archaeology and ecosystem management.
Last year, the UVic lab had one researcher participating in the search, largely to gather information in preparation for this year. Bradley says the project “offers incredible learning opportunities for graduate students in our lab and also showcases the type of work we’re able to do.” “For us it’s an opportunity to take research out of the university environment, out of academia, and move it into the real world and into a project that’s very much in the public eye, and that’s fascinating.”
There are plans to carry out more work in the Arctic in the future, he says, such as seafloor mapping, scientific research, and possibly “projects under the ice.” “We have a vision for that, and this is an excellent way of gaining experience and of working in that environment. Very, very few people and researchers and universities have done that.”