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UVic team hopes to solve Arctic mystery

Aug 24 2012

A team from the University of Victoria are once again headed to the Arctic in the hope of helping unravel the mystery of the lost ships of Sir John Franklin.

Underwater archeologists from Parks Canada have spent the past three seasons searching for HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, which disappeared during the British explorer's illfated 1845 mission to chart the Northwest Passage.

None of the 129 men on board survived, and although traces of the expedition have been found, the ships' final resting places remain unknown.

Last year, Alison Proctor, a UVic graduate student and research engineer, participated in the search using a remotely operated submersible controlled via a long cable.

"She was really looking at the environment; scoping out the resources that are available and assessing the challenges and difficulties of working in the Arctic," said Colin Bradley, a mechanical engineer and director of UVic's Ocean Technology Lab.

This year, Proctor and the UVic team will use the lab's autonomous underwater vehicle, which works without a pilot, allowing it to cover a wider area.

The AUV is equipped with a bathymetric sidescan sonar system to gather three-dimensional data about the ocean floor that can be used to identify items of archeological interest and for charting by the Canadian Hydrographic Service.

"It gives very, very good resolution. So we should be able to detect objects of interest down to several centimetres in size," he said.

"It basically is looking beneath and to the left and to the right of its trajectory," Bradley said. "It's mapping out - depending on the depth - it could be 50 metres wide or 100 or 200 metres wide swath of the sea floor using acoustic techniques and giving a fairly detailed imagery of the sea floor and what might be hidden there."

The search is being expanded this year from six days to about four weeks.

Team members will spend 12 to 14 hours a day operating the AUV from a 16-foot boat that will be launched from a Canadian Coast Guard vessel and a research vessel provided by the Arctic Research Foundation.

The search, led by Parks Canada, will focus on the Victoria Strait/Alexandra Strait region, where one of the vessels is thought to have foundered, and the southern region near O'Reilly Island, west of the Adelaide Peninsula, where Inuit oral tradition places one of the wrecks.


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