Dr. Philippe D. Tortell and Dr. Roger Francois are professors of earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Jay T. Cullen is a professor at the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of Victoria. The three are among 40 Canadian researchers who have been diverted from research projects years in the planning after their Coast Guard vessel was reassigned to break ice for several commercial supply ships trying to reach remote communities on the Hudson Bay coast.
The well-being and prosperity of Canada is intimately tied to the health of our oceans. It is thus crucial that we understand the impacts of environmental change and human disturbance on our marine ecosystems. Nowhere are the impacts of environmental change or the pace of potential economic development greater than in Canada's vast Arctic Ocean region.
Yet it is precisely here that our country faces the greatest challenges in monitoring ocean conditions, as the events of the past week have demonstrated.
On July 10, a group of approximately 40 Canadian researchers from across the country set sail from Quebec City on the Coast Guard ship Amundsen for a six-week expedition through the High Arctic. The researchers were conducting sampling activities and experiments to measure biological, chemical and physical conditions in Arctic Ocean waters.
Several groups on board had planned experiments to examine the effects of ocean acidification on Arctic marine organisms, while other researchers were measuring seawater chemical composition to establish base-line levels and document oceanic processes and their climate-driven variability throughout the study region. Research was also being conducted to describe the surface and deep water currents between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago to better understand the dispersal of marine organisms and potential contaminants across vast stretches of Canada's northern coastline and beyond.
The research is a necessary foundation for any meaningful monitoring of human impacts resulting from expanded northern resource exploration and vessel traffic over the coming decades.
Approximately one week into the expedition, just south of the Arctic Circle, our vessel abruptly reversed course and proceeded to steam south at full speed. We were under orders from Coast Guard headquarters in Ottawa to assist with ice-breaking duties more than two days' travel to the south. That was a little more than a week ago, and little has changed since; the ship has remained on call for ice-breaking and escort duties, with all science suspended until further notice.
This situation highlights Canada's limited capacity to support world-class ocean science in the North while also meeting the social and economic needs of our Northern communities.
At present, Canada has only two heavy and four medium ice breakers, all of which work under the Coast Guard fleet. Even if all of these vessels were capable of accessing the entire Arctic Ocean, each would be responsible for approximately 25,000 kilometres of coastline. Unlike the United States, Germany, France, Russia and China, which have dedicated Arctic research vessels, the Canadian Coast Guard is asked to juggle the competing demands of sea-lift support, navigational aid tending and search and rescue, while also serving as the sole platform for Arctic marine research – and indeed research in all of Canada's offshore waters.
For more than a decade, Canadian scientists have worked closely with exceptional Coast Guard officers and crew to conduct ocean science in Canada's North. This partnership has been successful and has led to fundamental discoveries about our Arctic territorial waters and their response to rapid climate warming and sea-ice melt.
But the fact remains that Arctic marine science in Canada is hobbled by resource constraints. No doubt, Canada does have some world-class facilities for High Arctic research, including the soon-to-be-completed Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS). But these excellent facilities do not diminish the need for robust seagoing capabilities.
As the country with the world's longest Arctic coastline, we have a responsibility for sustainable management of our northern marine ecosystems, balancing responsible economic development with scientifically based environmental stewardship.
The Canadian scientific community stands ready to lead this nation in facing the challenges associated with climate change and human impacts in northern marine waters. But we need critical investments in infrastructure to support this work on behalf of all Canadians. In the meantime, it seems that we can only sit and wait.