A Scientific Time Capsule in Arctic Canada!

Credit: Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

Pingualuit Crater, known to the Inuit as the “Crystal Eye,” previously attracted prospectors looking for diamonds. The tales its deep waters may spin, though, are the true treasure, as reported by BBC.

Emergency exit

The aircraft made a sharp rightward bank. An alarm sounded, the lights above the emergency exits flashed red, and the sound of the aircraft’s engines roaring back into an action-filled the main cabin as we made the initial sweep at the runway, or rather, the small length of uneven land in the Arctic tundra that would serve as one. My tummy quaked.

It was a thrilling introduction to the Nunavik region, which is located in Quebec’s far north. The majority of people aren’t even aware that it exists; it makes up the top third of the Canadian province, which is twice the size of Great Britain and greater than the US state of California. However, it wasn’t always that.

This region was hailed as the eighth wonder of the world in 1950, with articles about it appearing in newspapers all across the world. Not because of the wilderness or any man-made structures, but rather because of the distinctive land feature, Pingualuit Crater, that I was now flying over as I attempted to take another shot at the runway.

Landing attempt

“The name is Inuktitut for the skin blemishes or pimples caused by the very cold weather,” explained Isabelle Dubois, project coordinator for Nunavik Tourism, who had previously only visited the crater in winter when the landscape was covered with snow.

I took a break from thinking about our second landing attempt by looking out the window, and I noticed how appropriate a name it was. Clefts, fissures, and depressions on the tundra are home to tiny water-filled pockets. Nevertheless, the eponymous crater stuck out noticeably among the other indentations.

Its immensity, about 3.5 km in diameter and well over 10 km in circumference, but also its symmetry, set it apart. Our tiny Twin Otter aeroplane was now mirrored in the nearly circular, water-filled crater as if a giant had dropped a small mirror on the ground; it appeared as nothing more than a speck of dust.

We landed a few kilometres from the edge of this curiosity with a few bumps, several warning alarms, and an abrupt and dramatic halt. One of the most distant national parks in the nation, Pingualuit, has five solar-powered cottages that serve as the official base camp for visitors. We would spend the night there.

Navigational aid

I spoke with Pierre Philie, a French cultural geographer with a keen interest in anthropology who lives in Kangiqsujuaq (Nunavik’s farthest northern settlement and the entrance to this geographical wonder), while we unpacked the plane (there are no porters or personnel here) and settled in the warm cabins. A local woman and the region he was sent to on assignment 40 years ago made him fall in love, and he never left.

A replica of a black and white aerial shot of Pingualuit was displayed to me by Philie. One of the US Army Air Force officers who saw it on June 20, 1943, took it. Philie started to explain while I pondered what the officer must have thought of it at the time.

“It was first known to anyone from the Western world that year, during World War Two, when fighter pilots spotted it and used it as a navigational aid. But they didn’t share it with the rest of the world until the war was over,” he said.

When they did, in 1950, one of the first people to be mesmerised by it was a prospector from Ontario called Fred W Chubb. He was convinced the landmark was caused by a volcano, which would likely mean diamonds lay within it. He asked the advice of the then-director of the Ontario Museum, Dr Meen, who, equally captivated, journeyed there with him to investigate (it’s the reason that for a short time Pingualuit was known as Chubb Crater) – but the volcano theory was eventually dismissed.

“Now we know beyond doubt that it is a meteor crater,” said Philie, as the sun began to set over Manarsulik Lake, located about 2.5km from Pingualuit, leaving the edge of the crater as faint as a watermark on the dazzling pink horizon. “Tomorrow we shall see it.”

The following day began at dawn with a hike through large chunks of rocky terrain. Some, according to Philie, were significant granite chunks and shattered bedrock remnants from the previous Ice Age, while others were impactite samples created as a result of melting during impact. As a result of the minerals inside liquifying and bubbling under the heat and pressure of the collision, the latter were ink-black and covered in small holes.

“The impact happened 1.4 million years ago,” confirmed Philie, as we ascended the lip of the rim. “Looking at the crater’s width and depth [around 400m], its impact is estimated to have been 8,500 times stronger than the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima.” 

Purest water

That fact was remarkable. But finally reaching the edge and gazing down on the gaping hole of Pingualuit, where the lake inside sparkled with ice that encrusted two-thirds of it – despite it being July – was even more astounding.

“Of course, the Inuit knew about it before the Westerners came to look for diamonds,” said Markusie Qisiiq, Pingualuit Park director and guide. “They called it the Crystal Eye of Nunavik.”

From where I stood, under an impossibly blue sky dotted with as many clouds as the tundra was with “blemishes”, that name seemed to fit best of all.

Philie became more energetic as we travelled over the uneven terrain while encircling the lake. He discussed the lake’s transparency, which is thought to be the second-purest water in the world (Lake Mashu in Japan is thought to be the purest); the mystery of the Arctic char that live there, which scientists still can’t agree on how they got there because there are no streams running in or out; and who have turned to cannibalism to ensure their own survival; as well as evidence that suggests that in addition to the Inuit, another people once lived there.

“The landscape is a living book,” he concluded. “There is so much we can learn if we take the time to read it.”

Scientific time capsule

People have been arriving in recent years just to do it.

In order to collect samples from the water’s surface, a group of scientists from Laval University in Quebec arrived in the winter of 2007. They were led by Professor Reinhard Pienitz. Even as scientists continue to learn more about it, Pienitz referred to it as a “scientific time capsule” that can provide information on previous events of climate change and how ecosystems responded to stress.

When I got close to the water’s edge, Philie was throwing rocks onto the ice with a rock in his hand. As ice fragments collided with one another and drifted into the sea, a melodic chiming suddenly filled the otherwise silent air.

We filled our water bottles to sip this pristine water and then headed back to camp. We only had to halt once due to the passage of a massive herd of uncountable numbers of caribou. My stomach churned as I observed this display of migrating wildlife next to a crater that was as enormous as one on the Moon.

But this time, a rocky landing wasn’t to blame. Instead, it was the insight that, though there might not be any diamonds in this area, there are a plethora of tales and scientific discoveries just metres below the surface waiting to be unearthed.


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Source: BBC