Sunday, July 12, 2015

Did RADARSAT-2 Find HMS Erebus?

          By Chuck Black

The final chapter on Sir John Franklin's 1845 expedition to traverse the remaining, unexplored sections of the famed Northwest Passage has developed a distinctly modern, and very political, twist.

Pulitzer prize winning photographer/reporter Paul Watson has resigned from Canada's largest daily newspaper over allegations that his bosses at the Toronto Star refused to publish a story of "significant public interest," relating to the September 2014 discovery of the wreck of one of the lost ships from the expedition.

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror leaving Greenhithe, England, on the morning of 19 May 1845, under the command of  Captain Sir John Franklin, in an ill-fated attempt to traverse the remaining unexplored sections of the Northwest passage. Both vessels were classified as Royal Navy bomb ships, a type built with extremely strong hulls to withstand the recoil of the mortars which they normally carried. This made the ships ideal for exploration of the Arctic and Antarctic regions, where the stronger hulls provided protection against pack ice and icebergs. Despite this protection, both ships (along with Franklin and 128 other officers and crew) were lost sometime after July 1845. As outlined in the September 8th, 2014 CBC News article, "Lost Franklin expedition ship found in the Arctic," no less a personage than Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced in 2014 that the wreck of HMS Erebus had been found. Graphic originally published in the May 24th, 1845 edition of the Illustrated London News.

According to Watson, and as outlined in the July 8th, 2015 CBC radio program "As It Happens" segment "Journalist Paul Watson on the Franklin Expedition & his Toronto Star resignation," the real story began in April 2015, when various government employees "who were experts in their field (and the) people who actually did find that ship" became angry over news reports surrounding the discovery, but were unable to correct the public record for fear of "losing their jobs."

One specific program acted as a lightning rod for their anger; the April 9th, 2015 CBC documentary on "Franklin's Lost Ships," an episode of the long running CBC program "The Nature of Things."

Watson, the only journalist on the lead Canadian icebreaker involved in the 2014 Victoria Strait expedition which found the Erebus, said that those involved with the search were specifically concerned over accounts originating from John G. Geiger, the ex-editorial board editor of the Globe and Mail and current CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS), "which these experts believed were incorrect."

The RCGS was heavily involved with the most recent search for the HMS Erebus. Geiger was also the co-author of the 2004 book, "Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition."

A screenshot from "Franklin's Lost Ships," which first aired on April 9th, 2015 and was cited by Watson as being the catalyst which drove his current efforts. The complete program is available online at no charge on the CBC website. Screenshot c/o CBC.

According to Watson, Geiger had direct access to "at least one source" in the prime minister's office along with access to the editors at the Star and worked to kill the story. A useful overview of those attempts which eventually culminated in Watson's resignation is included in the July 8th, 2015 CanadaLand post "Q&A with Paul Watson, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist, on why he just Resigned from the Toronto Star" and the July 9th follow-up "Paul Watson vs. the Toronto Star."

Of course, Watson isn't the only one objecting to the spin the Federal government seems to be putting on the HMS Erebus discovery. Former Research in Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie, who contributed money and a research vessel through the Arctic Research Foundation (which he founded along with businessman Tim MacDonald), and who used his Ottawa connections to secure support from other government departments for the expedition, also expressed concerns.

As outlined in his April 30th, 2015 letter to environment minister Leona Aglukkaq, Balsillie was "concerned that the (CBC) documentary contains information that runs contrary to the planning meeting we held in your office on June 9th, 2014 and filmed for the Prime Minister’s on-line news channel. The narrative, as currently presented, attempts to minimize the role of the Government and its respective agencies and private partners. It also creates new and exaggerated narratives for the exclusive benefit of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society and its own partners."

The April 30th, 2015 letter from Jim Balsillie to environment minister Leona (not "Leon") Aglukkaq outlining concerns over the CBC documentary on "Franklin's Lost Ships." The complete letter is available online at

Why would what is essentially a scientific expedition demand so much attention from Ottawa - and what is the connection to space?

That's easy. As outlined in the May 20th, 2015 Bloomberg Business article, "How a 19th Century Shipwreck Could Give Canada Control of the Arctic," the military, civilian and Canadian Space Agency (CSA) tools requisitioned to find Franklin's ships could also be re-purposed to stand guard over Canada's northern borders and bolster Canada's claim to the arctic.


Although not mentioned explicitly as one of the resources used for the latest search by the mass media, an undated posting on the University of Waterloo website under the title "Alumnus Proves Missing Piece in Franklin Discovery" leaves little doubt that at least one expert in deciphering RADARSAT-2 Earth observation data was involved in the find.

The posting credits "a handful of dedicated sleuths, including Geography grad Tom Zagon," as being the ones who "finally put the puzzle together in a multidisciplinary effort that speaks to the power of combining satellite imagery, ice climatology and historical records."

RADARSAT data expert Tom Zagan. Photo c/o University of Waterloo.

Of course, many of the specific capabilities of the RADARSAT-2 ground penetrating synthetic aperture radar (SAR) are military secrets.

Examples of RADARSAT 2 literature available from the CSA and prime contractor MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) suggest (but don't explicitly state) that the data derived from the satellite is useful for mapping the ocean floor (which means that it could see through salt water at certain frequencies) and able to differentiate between rocks, man made objects (like ships) and ice.

Other documents, such as chapter 10 of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Synthetic Aperture Radar Marine User's Manual state that under favorable conditions, SAR has the ability to detect sea floor topographic features in shallow water areas.

Chuck Black.
But while there are likely a great many good reasons to publicize the discovery of the Erebus from a political and historical perspective, there may also be sound military reasons to confuse and obfuscate the specific techniques used to make those discoveries and to control at the political level any release of information on the find.

So don't expect anything substantial to come out over the next little while. Endangering national security puts a whole new spin on the situation.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

1 comment:

  1. Tom Zagan was using RadarSat to map at the flow of ice south through Alexandra Strait and beyond, which is how Erebus drifted to her current location. I doubt he could see the bottom.


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