An Arctic science expedition planned with all the precision of a space mission has been knocked off track by a federal government decision to reassign a Coast Guard research vessel to do urgent ice breaking duties.
Instead of carrying 40 scientists deep into the Arctic to research climate change, the Amundsen has been temporarily reassigned to break ice for several commercial supply ships trying to reach remote communities on the Hudson Bay coast.
The Coast Guard said it had no choice but to pull the Amundsen off its research expedition because some communities are running out of fuel and other vital supplies.
Steady westerly winds and a late breakup of sea ice in Hudson Bay has blocked shipping channels, making it impossible for freighters to reach many ports.
For the scientists, however, it means a mission that was planned down to the minute has suddenly been upended.
"Scientists are frustrated," Dr. Jay Cullen said in an e-mail sent Tuesday from the Amundsen, which on Sunday pulled in its scientific probes, did a U-turn in Davis Strait – between Greenland and Nunavut – and headed to the south tip of Baffin Island.
"The Amundsen has never been diverted from science for ice breaking duty in the Arctic according to the Captain," wrote Dr. Cullen, a University of Victoria researcher whose Geotraces project relates to the impacts of ocean acidification and climate change effects.
He said research projects, some of which took four years to plan, will have to be put aside.
"Some proposed scientific operations will be cancelled," he wrote.
Dr. Cullen said he understood the urgency of helping supply ships, but was disappointed the Coast Guard didn't have any other vessels available.
Johnny Leclair, the Coast Guard's acting assistant commissioner for the Central and Arctic Region, said the Amundsen had to be reassigned because of "harsh conditions."
He said two other Coast Guard vessels in the region weren't available. The Pierre Radisson is busy helping a fuel tanker trapped in ice in Frobisher Bay and the Terry Fox had to be sent back to port in Newfoundland to resupply after escorting ships through the ice.
"In this situation there was no life in danger but there was an emergency because some communities were in dire need of goods," said Mr. Leclair.
"We will redeploy the Amundsen for scientific work as soon as possible," he said. "If there is anything we can do to catch up with the work put aside, we will do so."
Dr. Martin Fortier, executive director of ArcticNet, which is co-ordinating the science expedition, said the Coast Guard informed him the Amundsen will be on ice-breaking duties probably for seven or eight days.
"It's frustrating for us, but at the same time we were told there is no other ship available and we understand the priority of safety at sea," said Dr. Fortier.
He said the Amundsen, which for the past 12 years has done annual research cruises in the Arctic, has helped with emergencies before.
"Any time there are search-and-rescue operations, so hunters or ships stranded in the North, the closest ship has to go," he said. "This is an exceptional situation where no other ship was available and kind of a perfect storm [developed] with conditions in Hudson Bay."
He didn't know how many research projects might be cancelled.
"There will be impacts and we are just trying to minimize them," he said.
ArcticNet is a network of scientists and managers from 30 Canadian universities, eight federal and 11 provincial agencies and the private sector that studies the impacts of climate change in the Arctic. The Amundsen is a key platform for much of that work. It is a unique vessel in the Coast Guard fleet, being jointly funded by the government and the consortium of universities. The ship divides its duties – serving scientists from May to October and doing routine Coast Guard work, usually breaking ice in the St. Lawrence Seaway, for the other six months.