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The Tuvaijuittuq Marine Protected Area is one of two large regions of Nunavut where the Canadian government is trying to protect Canada's Arctic marine and coastal areas.

© Christine Michel

Known for its old, thick, pack ice, Tuvaijuittuq means “the place where the ice never melts” in Inuktitut. That will soon be a misnomer: It is now widely accepted that the Arctic will soon be entirely ice-free during summer.

That’s bad news for ongoing efforts to protect large swaths of Canada’s northern oceans. Dwindling sea ice is rapidly altering the very nature of the surrounding ecosystems, outpacing traditional conservation methods such as cordoning off protected areas and listing species as endangered.

The Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area – formerly Lancaster Sound – was established last year across 108,000 square kilometres in northeastern Nunavut. It will henceforth be protected from ocean dumping, oil and gas exploration, bottom trawling, underwater mining and other human activities. Further north, a 322,000-square-kilometre area known as Tuvaijuittuq Marine Protected Area received temporary shielding. Combined, they cover more square kilometres than Newfoundland and Labrador, and helped the federal government exceed a commitment to protect 10 per cent of Canada’s marine and coastal areas by this year.

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SVALBARD

Tuvaijuittuq

Marine

Protected

Area

Detail

Last Ice

Area

Boundary

Arctic Ocean

GREENLAND

NUNAVUT

Tallurutiup Imanga

National Marine

Conservation Area

Resolute Bay

Pond Inlet

NORTHWEST

TERRITORIES

0

500

Baffin Island

KM

matt mcclearn and JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE

AND MAIL, SOURCE: world wildlife fund;

parks canada; esri

SVALBARD

Tuvaijuittuq

Marine

Protected

Area

Detail

Last Ice

Area

Boundary

Arctic Ocean

GREENLAND

NUNAVUT

Tallurutiup Imanga

National Marine

Conservation Area

Grise Fjord

Resolute Bay

Pond Inlet

NORTHWEST

TERRITORIES

Arctic Bay

0

500

Baffin Island

KM

matt mcclearn and JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: world wildlife fund; parks canada; esri

SVALBARD

Tuvaijuittuq

Marine

Protected

Area

0

500

Detail

Last Ice

Area

Boundary

KM

Greenland Sea

Arctic Ocean

GREENLAND

NUNAVUT

Tallurutiup Imanga

National Marine

Conservation Area

Grise Fjord

Resolute Bay

Pond Inlet

Baffin Bay

Arctic Bay

NORTHWEST

TERRITORIES

Clyde River

Baffin Island

matt mcclearn and JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: world wildlife fund;

parks canada; esri

It was a victory for the World Wildlife Fund, which more than a decade ago identified the high Arctic archipelago above Nunavut and Greenland as the area where sea ice will persist the longest. It dubbed this the “Last Ice Area,” a final refuge for walruses, seals, belugas, polar bears and other Arctic mammals that depend on sea ice. It was also a victory for Inuit who advocated for protecting these areas for decades.

But getting to this point involved all the political wrangling, bureaucratic sluggishness, feasibility studies, steering committees and pilot programs that one would expect from any major multigovernment initiative. Those human processes are in a race with natural ones, and the latter appear to have a decisive lead. Arctic sea ice expands during the frigid winter and dwindles in summer. Overall concentrations have declined dramatically since the National Snow and Ice Center started collecting satellite data in 1979. All 14 of the lowest ice extents occurred in the past 14 years.

According to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, Arctic sea ice likely reached its yearly minimum extent on Sept. 15; at 3.74 million square kilometres, it was the second lowest on record.

We might not have sufficient time to understand these ecosystems – much less protect them – in what little time remains.

Source: Google Earth


monthly arCtic Sea ice extent

Area of ocean with at least 15% sea ice

14 million sq. km

2020

12

2012

1981-2010 median

10

8

6

4

2

June

July

Aug.

Sept.

Oct.

monthly arCtic Sea ice extent

Area of ocean with at least 15% sea ice

14 million sq. km

2020

12

2012

1981-2010 median

10

8

6

4

2

June

July

Aug.

Sept.

Oct.

monthly arCtic Sea ice extent

Area of ocean with at least 15% sea ice

14 million sq. km

2020

12

2012

1981-2010 median

10

8

6

4

2

June

July

Aug.

Sept.

Oct.

Growing up in Pangnirtung, a small hamlet on Baffin Island, Paul Okalik witnessed the dramatic loss of sea ice first-hand.

Lacking an arena and surrounded by mountains, residents waited until their fjord froze – typically in October – to skate and play hockey. But “in more recent years, the freeze-up has been later, in December, and a couple of times in January,” said Mr. Okalik, a lawyer who served as Nunavut’s premier and now lives in Iqaluit.

Even if greenhouse gases were capped immediately, researchers expect the sea ice will continue wasting away for several decades. Land ice is dwindling as well. A large portion of the Milne Ice Shelf – the last of Canada’s intact ice shelves, located within Tuvaijuittuq – collapsed between July 30 and Aug. 4. Just weeks later, a large chunk broke off the Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden ice sheet in northeast Greenland.

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Greenland’s melting ice sheet

A 110-square-km slab of ice has broken off the Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden Glacier in Greenland. In 2019 Greenland lost a record 532 billion tonnes of ice, more than double the average loss since 2003

Arctic Ocean

Melting ice

Northeast

Greenland

Ice Stream

Atlantic

Ocean

GREENLAND

0

400

KM

Aug. 2020: A chunk of ice – larger than – breaks off from the Arctic’s largest ice shelf. Glacier N79 is the floating front end of the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream

Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden

Glacier (N79)

Greenland’s melting ice sheet

A 110-square-km slab of ice has broken off the Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden Glacier in Greenland. In 2019 Greenland lost a record 532 billion tonnes of ice, more than double the average loss since 2003

Arctic Ocean

Melting ice

Northeast

Greenland

Ice Stream

GREENLAND

Atlantic

Ocean

0

400

KM

Aug. 2020: A chunk of ice – larger than – breaks off from the Arctic’s largest ice shelf. Glacier N79 is the floating front end of the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream

Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden

Glacier (N79)

Greenland’s melting ice sheet

A 110-square-km slab of ice has broken off the Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden Glacier in Greenland. In 2019 Greenland lost a record 532 billion tonnes of ice, more than double the average loss since 2003

Aug. 2020: A chunk of ice – larger than – breaks off from the Arctic’s largest ice shelf. Glacier N79 is the floating front end of the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream

Arctic Ocean

Melting ice

Northeast

Greenland

Ice Stream

Atlantic

Ocean

GREENLAND

0

400

Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden

Glacier (N79)

KM

When it established Tuvaijuittuq last summer, the federal government predicted the last year-round sea ice would not disappear until at least 2050. New forecasts suggest it could happen sooner. A study published in Nature Climate Change in August predicted the Arctic could be ice-free in summer by 2035. Another paper published last year in the journal Geophysical Research Letters offered an even earlier date: 2030. “It seems like time is running out,” said Brandon Laforest, a specialist in Arctic species and ecosystems with the WWF. “It is getting shorter and shorter every time we check.”

Enric Sala is National Geographic’s explorer-in-residence and founder of Pristine Seas, a project aimed at exploring and protecting what it considers to be the oceans' last truly wild places. In 2015, he spent six weeks camping at Navy Board Inlet, at the far northern end of Baffin Island, just as the ice was breaking up.

Mr. Sala’s team wanted to film polar bears, narwhals and belugas. The Inuit of nearby Pond Inlet said this was when and where they would find them. “To be able to see these animals, and to see so many seals, and really fat polar bears catching seals – it was like going back to the wild planet that we used to have,” Mr. Sala recalled.

Spectacles like that one are expected to move further north as sea ice retreats.

Consider polar bears. Four decades of satellite data confirm they’ve lost a great deal of sea-ice habitat. Researchers have linked earlier breakup of sea ice to impaired health, reproduction and survival. “Polar bears do everything on the ice,” said Kristin Laidre, a researcher at the University of Washington who studies Arctic marine mammals. “They use the ice to travel, they use the ice to feed. They find their mates on the ice, they breed on the ice.”

Mr. Sala explained that polar bears' diets consist almost entirely of seals, which survive on fish that in turn eat shrimp-like creatures that thrive on microscopic algae living near the ice’s edge. “If there is no ice, the entire base of that food chain is gone,” said Mr. Sala, whose documentary The Last Ice (to be released in Canada in November) explores how Inuit communities are responding to climate change’s impact.

The idea of establishing a protected area around Lancaster Sound had been around since at least the late 1970s. But for decades, Mr. Okalik said, conservation efforts were confined to those introduced by the Inuit themselves, such as no-hunting zones in areas used by whales for calving. "The government didn’t really take us seriously,” said Mr. Okalik. “That’s the irony of our story. We always knew that these were areas of concern and needed to be addressed, way back in the day.”

That changed a decade ago, he said, when the government committed to protecting at least 10 per cent of Canada’s marine and coastal areas by 2020. Around that time, a steering committee was established to determine whether protecting Lancaster Sound was actually a good idea. A five-year feasibility study, which included more than 30 consultation meetings, determined that it was, which led to a federal-territorial agreement and the establishment of Tallurutiup Imanga.

Efforts to protect Tuvaijuittuq, which is even more remote, are just beginning.

Debbie Ming, director of marine planning and conservation in the Arctic for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, says scientists have already identified unique ecosystems underneath the region’s multiyear ice during expeditions in 2018 and 2019. Now the department is gathering information from Inuit, such as when certain species migrate through the area.

So far, the expeditions have observed walruses north of their known distribution range – “which may indicate range expansion for this species, or point to how little we know about the area,” explained Christine Michel, a scientist with DFO’s Arctic and aquatic research division, in a written response to questions.

DFO’s study of ecosystems in the Last Ice Area is based at an ice camp near Canadian Forces Station Alert on the northeastern tip of Ellesmere Island, which it relies on for logistical support. This year’s field work had to be postponed after the station closed due to COVID-19.

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A stretch of multi-year ice at the Tuvaijuittuq Marine Protected Area.

© Pierre Coupel

Justifications exist for every step in the process of establishing these protected areas. They’re intended to ensure transparency and accountability. They’re also aimed at securing buy-in from Inuit, which could yield more opportunities to collect scientific samples and monitor local harvests.

Yet rapidly changing conditions are undermining aspects of traditional conservation.

For example, borders of protected areas have historically been permanent and inviolable. Mr. Laforest said protecting the Last Ice Area demands greater flexibility. What’s the point of cordoning off an area to protect narwhal, for instance, if they subsequently relocate?

"What might be a good habitat now that you’re trying to protect, may not be there in a couple of decades unless we get a handle on greenhouse gas emissions,” said Dr. Laidre.

And that points to the larger problem. The WWF had hoped to buy ice-dependent species time by managing other threats such as over-harvesting, oil spills and ship strikes. But it has long acknowledged that such restrictions cannot secure the Last Ice Area’s future. Only reducing emissions can achieve that.

“For sure, putting a boundary around sea ice and telling it not to melt isn’t going to get us very far,” Mr. Laforest acknowledged. But dwelling on such limitations isn’t productive, he added. "It’s important that we regulate what we can, and not throw our hands in the air and say it’s a global problem.

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“We do have a lot of leverage that we can pull here in Canada.”


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