A celebrated Arctic marine biologist, Louis Fortier has hauled up many a sea creature over the span of his career. But ask him about the one that got away and Dr. Fortier has something bigger than fish on his mind.
As he hosts a conference on Arctic change in Quebec City this week, attended by about 1,500 colleagues, the Laval University researcher is also looking ahead to the scientific activities he will oversee aboard the Canadian Coast Guard ship Amundsen next summer.
With financial support from a Swiss billionaire and promise of an escort from a more powerful Russian nuclear icebreaker, Dr. Fortier had originally proposed a scientific expedition to circumnavigate Greenland and use the Amundsen's facilities and autonomous underwater vehicles to study how the edge of the country's melting ice sheet is interacting with a warming ocean.
"That's crucial. It's how we're going to understand whether, by the end of this century, the sea level will have risen by two metres or three metres," Dr. Fortier told The Globe and Mail.
But, to his chagrin, Coast Guard officials rejected that trip after months of planning. Instead, the Amundsen will spend its time closer to home in Canadian Arctic waters.
Asked about the decision, a Coast Guard spokesperson said it was "based on the results of operational and technical risk assessments, which concluded that risk to the vessel was too great." However, the spokesperson added, there was also a secondary consideration that the Amundsen might not get back in time for its non-scientific role as an icebreaker in the Gulf of St. Lawrence next winter.
The matter is a sensitive one for Dr. Fortier and ArcticNet, the academic-research organization for which he acts as scientific director. To make good use of the Amundsen, the network depends on a close working relationship with the Coast Guard, its captains and crew. And Dr. Fortier is quick to point out that Arctic science in Canada had accelerated dramatically since the Amundsen was refurbished and outfitted as a research ship a decade and a half ago. However, the ship spends only part of its time as a floating laboratory and each year it alternates between that job and ice breaking.
Last spring, with heavy ice conditions off the Newfoundland coast, the Coast Guard opted to keep the Amundsen on icebreaker duty, delaying the start of its scientific work and forcing the cancellation of a Hudson Bay expedition leg. The decision meant that experiments, long prepared, were not carried out and, for some graduate students, work needed to complete PhDs was delayed for at least a year. The longer-term impact is that studies that depend on environmental measurements made at regular intervals become scientifically compromised when there are gaps in the record.
In 2014, the Amundsen was similarly retasked with little warning when two other icebreakers were directed by the federal Conservative government to journey to the North Pole in a show of Canadian sovereignty. Now, the cancellation of the Greenland excursion again shows how scheduling and other priorities can take precedence over the ship's scientific returns.
The frustration, Dr. Fortier said, is that other non-Arctic countries including Britain, France, China and South Korea are pressing ahead with fully dedicated research ships for working in the Arctic without such constraints. Canada, which oversees a vast share of Arctic territory, risks being left behind even as climate change accelerates the transformation of northern ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.
Dr. Fortier said he has been working on ways to finance a separate vessel for Arctic research in Canada through academic and private sponsors that he estimates would cost $150-million. In comparison, the Diefenbaker, the long-awaited next generation Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker, is projected to be launched around the mid-2020s with a price of more than $1-billion.
At the Quebec meeting, the largest annual Arctic science conference in the country, researchers are set to discuss every aspect of the changing North, from marine life to human health. But in the background there is some uncertainty as ArcticNet's federal funding officially expires in March.
By being parsimonious with its resources, the organization will have a modest research program this year, executive director Leah Braithwaite said. It will also have an opportunity to compete for funding in the new year, something that was previously prohibited for research networks that have already won federal money twice (in the case of ArcticNet, for two successive seven-year cycles). However, the pool of available funding is smaller than ArcticNet's current budget, Ms. Braithwaite said, so even if the network is successful it will likely be making due with less and working around a "gap year" in its program.