An expedition that set out to explore the impacts of climate change in the Canadian Arctic has been forced to cancel its plans – because of climate change.
The research team aboard the Canadian coast guard icebreaker Amundsen has been forced to scrap the first leg of its expedition after extreme Arctic sea ice off the coast of Newfoundland delayed their access to key research areas in Hudson Bay.
The Amundsen, which set out on May 25 from Quebec City, was asked by the coast guard to help with the extreme ice conditions and assist fishing vessels that were trapped in the ice.
After being compressed by heavy winds, multiyear sea ice along the coast of Newfoundland was thicker than expected, said Dr. Louis Fortier, scientific director of ArcticNet and Amundsen Science. He explained that climate change is preventing the formation of ice arches – large blockages of ice that prevent sea ice from being pushed out of Arctic straits – as well as making it more difficult for polynya – year-round open water areas – to form.
The ship then missed the window for its scientific objectives in Hudson Bay, Fortier said.
It’s meant postponing this year’s work on the Hudson Bay System Study (BaySys), a project co-led by a team at the University of Manitoba and Manitoba Hydro to examine the influence of freshwater on Hudson Bay marine and coastal systems.
Fortier spoke to Arctic Deeply about what made the Arctic sea ice conditions so difficult off the coast of Newfoundland, what canceling the BaySys project this year means and what could have been done differently.
Arctic Deeply: Could you describe the extreme sea ice you encountered near Newfoundland?
Louis Fortier: The ice is very thick; it’s compressed by northeast wind against the coast of Newfoundland.
This multiyear ice is coming from the Arctic Ocean through the Nares Strait, which is between Ellesmere Island and Greenland, so it flows through Baffin Bay and then the Labrador Sea, and it follows the coast of Labrador and ends up at northeast Newfoundland.
This happens sometimes. For example, it happened in 2007 and 2014 again.
Arctic Deeply: What made this ice particularly difficult to navigate, and so unpredictable?
Fortier: This year the difference is that the multiyear ice, which is flowing south, has been pushed and compacted by northeast winds – by two storms – that pushed the ice and compressed it against northeast Newfoundland. So this is what is unusual.
There are always some issues, some ice left over around Newfoundland, at this time of year, but this year it’s way worse than usual. We knew that the conditions would be severe around Newfoundland, but not that severe.
Arctic Deeply: What does this tell us about the impact of climate change?
Fortier: What it’s telling us from a scientific point of view is that the ice arches that normally form in Nares Strait, and allow the North Water Polynya to form, maybe are not forming as often as they used to, so we should expect that situation to occur more frequently in the future.
It’s of interest to try to understand what’s going to happen to the extremely rich ecosystems that depend on those [arches].
Arctic Deeply: Do you have any specific examples of what could happen to those ecosystems?
Fortier: If the arches do not form, then the sea ice from the Arctic Ocean will tend to accumulate and remain in the northern part of Baffin Bay and some of it will flow south.
Northern Baffin Bay is where you have this North Water Polynya system. This is a very rich reproduction and feeding ground for whales, for seals, for mammals and birds. Some experts contend that nearly 90 percent of Arctic birds actually inhabit the north water, so it’s an exceptional system.
What’s going to happen with those ecosystems if the ice [arches] do not form anymore? This is one of the questions that we’re going to be debating in Copenhagen in November at an international meeting. These are issues that scientists are concerned with.
We don’t know what’s going to happen in the coming years, but if things like this year happen more often, then not only will fisheries and navigation be impacted by this flux of ice, but also the ecosystems up north.
Arctic Deeply: Did the Amundsen itself encounter any specific difficulties: Was it stuck in ice, or did any equipment not work as planned?
Fortier: The Amundsen herself had no problem reaching those regions.
We went through Belle Isle Strait and did some ice management there, and then we moved north into the Labrador Sea, which was fairly free of ice, and then we moved south again to northeast Newfoundland to enter the pack and try to provide some security services to the fishermen that, despite an announcement by the coast guard on the radio and in the newspaper not to go out at sea, went out at sea nevertheless and encountered that sea ice barrage.
But then the situation did not improve; the Amundsen was delayed even more.
At the end of the first week of June, it was too late at that time to go to Hudson Bay. It would have taken too much time to reach there to meet our scientific objectives in Hudson Bay. But there was no impediment for the ship to go to Hudson Bay.
Arctic Deeply: Are there any lessons to take away from this experience, or was there anything that could have been done differently?
Fortier: The coast guard fleet at this time is aging, so it needs more maintenance [and] more refit.
If those conditions are expected to occur more often, it’s going to be important in the annual deployment of the fleet that we take into consideration this possibility that there will be problems around Newfoundland or problems elsewhere. We need to be more attentive and look more carefully at the ice conditions in the given year and plan for some contingency because you never know when those situations will come about.
If there hadn’t been those two storms in the north Atlantic, then the situation might have been normal, but you have to plan for the possibility that they will occur at the wrong time.
And that’s true for Newfoundland, but it’s true for the overall region of the Arctic where the coast guard operates.
Arctic Deeply: Will the BaySys study set for this year be conducted next year?
Fortier: This is what we will be looking into in the coming months. We’ll see what are the possibilities to carry that program next year… because it’s part of an integrated program. There has been a lot of work around the bay, not using the Amundsen but other means, and all that is coordinated.
So is it worth it to go one year later to complete the mission? Are we going to be able to insert it, to integrate it, in the program for 2018, which is quite heavy? These are all questions. Where the money will come from and what our options are? It’s a bit early to answer exactly what’s going to happen.
Arctic Deeply: What else is planned for the rest of this year’s expedition?
Fortier: There is the annual mission of ArcticNet, which is very important because we go into the Arctic Archipelago and the different regions and we take measurements. We’ve been taking those measurements in some cases since the 90s, so these are time series that are extremely important. The longer they get, the more precious they get, helping us to try and forecast what’s going on in the Arctic.
Then there is the Inuit Health Survey, which is a re-edition of the 2004 first health survey that was conducted on the Amundsen for Nunavik. These are longitudinal surveys where the epidemiologists are trying to see the same people after 12 or 13 years. So it’s important that we conduct that mission this year because this is 13 years after the first one.
This one will be taking place in August and September, so there shouldn’t be any problems there ice-wise.