The Big Melt and its Global Implications

First published (with some revisions) by the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies in their quarterly magazine, Wall Papers. Check it out in pretty, glossy format here.

Photo by Jimmy Thomson

The Arctic Ocean is in the midst of major climatic change, with its once robust sea-ice cover visibly retrenching more and more every year.  As that ice melts, chemistry and circulation patterns are shifting, and scientists are just beginning to understand how serious the consequences may be for the rest of the world’s oceans.

“We have a marine arctic that is not simply passive – it will kick back,” warned Eddie Carmack, Senior Research Scientist Emeritus at Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “It is to our own good to explore effects that might lead to regime changes.”

Dr. Carmack was part of a leading group of Arctic scientists taking part in a 3-day workshop titled, “An Interdisciplinary Assessment of Climate Change Impacts on the Arctic Ocean,” held at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies in May 2012.  The workshop was envisioned by UBC professors Philippe Tortell and Roger Francois as a way to discuss strategies for monitoring the Arctic Ocean that take into account the importance of both terrestrial and oceanic fields of scientific research, and the unexpected rapid pace of changes occurring in the Arctic.

Dr. Carmack described the rapid pace this way.  In 2007, he took to the sea in the “Canada’s Three Oceans” project, traveling by icebreaker along the entire coast of Canada in order to establish a baseline for future effect of climate change. This baseline would be revisited in 2050, or so went the original plan. “It’s changing so fast,” he said, “there are things they can already say.”  Climate change impacts, such as increased stratification, shifts in population structure among plankton and bacteria, and ocean acidification are already becoming apparent in the Arctic.

Dr. Carmack laid out an extremely complex set of findings presented in a series of diagrams that showed how circulations between the world’s oceans interact, and argued that more needs to be explored regarding the biogeochemical distributions in the oceans in order to be able to predict what cascade effects and unintended consequences many of these changes might have. “There is a danger in waiting too long to begin new policies,” he warned.

In addition to Dr. Carmack, researchers traveled from all over the world, covering everything from glacier melt in Greenland to trace metals in estuarine systems in Russia to warming experiments in the Canadian tundra.  Part of the impetus for the workshop was to underscore the importance and cooperation around the new GEOTraces initiative, a monitoring system set up to better understand the changes. With international participation from over 30 nations, GEOTraces collects information on trace metals in the world’s oceans, which can be limiting factors for biological productivity, sources of contamination, or indicators of past and present climate change. The collection of this data requires ship charters, international permits, and a lot of money: some working groups during the conference were therefore devoted to these difficulties facing researchers.

Many of the researchers pointed out, like Dr. Carmack did, that the Arctic is “not just about bears, pteropods, and seals, it’s about the people.” To that end, the workshop also featured a public panel, appropriately titled, “The Big Melt” at the Vancouver Aquarium. Moderated by former Yukon premier Tony Penikett, the panel discussion featured Dr. Carmack alongside UBC Professors Michael Byers from Political Science and Candis Callison from the School of Journalism. All of the panelists, each coming from a different angle, nevertheless had much in the way of common ground: the need for more international cooperation, inclusion of northern communities, and proper communication of these issues to the public were all expressed.

According to Dr. Callison, science can often only be expressed to the public by portraying it in human terms.

“Facts and information become meaningful when they intersect with ethical and moral codes,” she explained. “After listening to an Inuit person talk about changes they’ve witnessed, passing climate change as a somehow normal and natural occurrence is not possible.”

Encouraging interaction between scientists from a diversity of nations, in conferences such as this one, is a valuable part of the process of bringing the world’s northern nations together to address the multitude of changes occurring in the Arctic.

As Dr. Byers noted, “an organization is only as important as the people in the room.” Conferences like this are a vital step in continuing to bring important people into the room to advance the international dialogue regarding arctic climate change, and the international gathering was representative of the way forward in understanding its future impacts.

Too much science? Is that even possible?

I may have been wrong. When I wrote about Harper and Co. slashing at funding for programs like the National Round Table on Energy and the Environment, attacking green groups, giving Cabinet power to approve infrastructure projects, and changing the rules for energy projects, I thought this was all about the pipelines. I thought it was a matter of clearing a path for the likes of Northern Gateway in order to encourage the development of the oil sands; a goal not all Canadians (myself included) are on board with, but one that he has at least made quite clear.

Maybe that was correct back then. But it’s gone much further than that, and the hits (still) keep coming. At least three major research stations have been severely impacted over the last two months, two over just the past couple of weeks: first we saw the closure of the PEARL arctic research station; next, Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, an invaluable resource for Canadian marine research, had its budget cut by a third; finally, today it was announced that the Environmental Lakes Area, a system of test lakes in Ontario for aquatic research, would no longer be accepting new projects, and that all of its staff would be seeing a 100% reduction in pay.

These three make up some of the bastions of Canadian science.

While our government is focused on the development of the Arctic for its hydrocarbon, precious metal, and fisheries resources, as well as its strategic and shipping value, it would stand to reason that a proportionate amount of care go into understanding it. That’s what PEARL was for. Researchers there undertook valuable atmospheric research to monitor the arctic, a climate zone that will have increasing effects on the rest of the planet as it rapidly changes; already we’re seeing a destabilization of the arctic vortex, an atmospheric system that has huge impacts on weather patterns further south. But, it was deemed too expensive to operate. And at about the cost of the upgrade to the communication system of a single F-35 stealth fighter jet, it’s easy to see why we can’t afford to study the area the jets are being purchased to defend.

I have a particular affection for Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre. It’s where I participated in a couple of nudibranch neuroanatomy (sea slug brain) research projects during my undergrad – an experience that cemented my love of the ocean, my respect for evolution and nature, and my acknowledgement that I would make a lousy career scientist. Set on the gorgeous remote west coast of Vancouver Island, deep in the rainforest, Bamfield hosts many dozens of scientists every year from all over the world, who come together in an open environment in state of the art laboratories. It’s the kind of place that reaffirms why scientists do what they do, and allows big-picture thinking while exploring the depths of marine biology problems. Naturally, I suppose, it’s the kind of place the Conservatives loathe.

The Environmental Lakes Area is the site of groundbreaking research into both acid rain and eutrophication by phosphorus, both major discoveries that have shaped industrial policy for decades, and without which we would have gone on doing huge environmental damage without knowing why. It’s perhaps for that very reason that Harper has elected to eliminate this particular piece of the environmental science puzzle: too much science, it turns out, may be possible.

Although these most recent attacks against environmental science (plus the elimination of DFO’s Contaminant Science program) can be linked to the tar sands push, due to their potential to silence future research that would condemn the ‘sands and related industries like pipelines and tankers, it’s looking now like the Conservatives are on a more general anti-environment push. What will come next remains to be seen, but it’s clear that whomever takes over in three years is going to be left with a badly damaged research (and physical) environment – and in the meantime, a whole generation of young environmental scientists are losing out on the opportunity to employ their skills and energy in a productive manner.