A group of leading Arctic researchers is putting forward a plan to conduct extensive monitoring of Baffin Bay, a rich marine environment that is rapidly being transformed by melting sea ice and glaciers.
The proposal, dubbed the Baffin Bay Observing System (BBOS), would involve Canada, Denmark and several other nations working together to gather data and analyze conditions up and down the 1,450-kilometre-long waterway that separates Greenland from the North American continent.
If successful, the project could serve as a model for comprehensive international monitoring of the Arctic Ocean, an even larger endeavour that scientists say is needed to better understand how the dramatic warming of Earth's polar regions will affect northern communities and ecosystems along with the rest of the world.
"We'd like to develop an observing system with several components," said Louis Fortier, a marine biologist at Laval University and scientific director of ArcticNet, a research network supported by the federal government and a consortium of Canadian universities.
The system could include wide-scale monitoring of sea ice from the air using drones, as well as a series of sophisticated probes, called low power cable observatories, that would be deployed on the seafloor and provide researchers with real-time data on temperature, currents, salinity and other variables. The underwater platforms would include hydrophones to follow the activities of marine mammals in the bay.
The technical challenge is finding ways to operate sophisticated equipment in the harsh environment, where the bottoms of enormous icebergs scour the bay and can destroy underwater equipment to a depth of 500 metres.
Dr. Fortier said the most important aspect of the project would be to gain the support of communities on both sides of the bay that rely on its wildlife and resources for their livelihoods and that are most directly impacted by its changing conditions. In some cases, the project would depend on coastal communities to serve as bases for relaying data to researchers around the world.
"Now that we have outlined the scientific rationale, before we go any further we want to be working with those communities to involve them right from the start," he added.
Baffin Bay is a focal point for climate change in the Arctic because it has increasingly been inundated with fresh water from melting sea ice and runoff from the shrinking Greenland ice sheet.
Since fresh water is more buoyant than salt water, the rapid addition of so much fresh water to Baffin Bay has the potential to disrupt ocean currents and impede the transfer of nutrients that are crucial to the bay's ecosystem between surface and deeper water.
The potential effects extend well beyond Baffin Bay.
"There is an urgent need to increase our understanding of how changes in the Arctic affect the North Atlantic," said Soren Rysgaard, who holds the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Arctic geomicrobiology and climate change, based at the University of Manitoba.
Dr. Rysgaard, who divides his time between Canada and Denmark, said that there is support for the project from the Greenland/Denmark side of Baffin Bay and interest from other countries in cross-border issues such as climate change, pollution, oil spills and fisheries.
The 30-year project would be poised to apply for funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation in 2017. If it is supported, the installation of monitoring systems could begin as early as the summer of 2018. But to achieve its ambitious goals, the observing system would need substantial contributions from international partners to meet its estimated $100-million price tag.
Speaking at a session on Arctic research co-operation at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Dr. Fortier said the proposed observing system would raise the level of international collaboration in the region.
"The transformation of the Arctic world raises big scientific challenges that can only be answered by big, co-ordinated science and research infrastructure," he said.
In a novel role for a Canadian politician at the world's largest science meeting, the session was moderated by federal Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan, who holds a PhD in medical geography and once led an expedition to look for preserved fragments of the 1918 Spanish flu virus in an Arctic burial site in Norway.
Ms. Duncan, who said at the session that Arctic science "is close to my heart," later told The Globe and Mail that enhanced co-operation would help attract international researchers to the Canadian Arctic, specifically to the Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, which is still under construction.
The minster said it was too soon to say whether the federal government would fund the Baffin Bay proposal.