A celebrated Arctic marine biologist, Louis Fortier has hauled many a sea monster over the length of his career. But ask him about the one that got away and Dr. Fortier has something larger than fish on his head.
As he hosts a seminar on Arctic shift in Quebec City this week, attended by about 1,500 coworkers, the Laval University researcher is also awaiting the scientific actions he’ll oversee aboard the Canadian Coast Guard boat Amundsen next summer.
With financial support from a Swiss billionaire and promise of an escort from a stronger Russian nuclear icebreaker, Dr. Fortier had initially proposed a scientific expedition to circumnavigate Greenland and utilize the Amundsen’s facilities and autonomous underwater vehicles to examine how the border of the nation’s melting ice sheet is interacting with a warming ocean.
“That’s vital. It’s how we are going to know if, by the end of the century, the sea level will have risen by 2 metres or three metres,” Dr. Fortier told The Globe and Mail.
However, to his chagrin, Coast Guard officials refused that trip after months of preparation. 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 outcomes of technical and operational risk assessments, which concluded that risk into the boat was too good.” However, the spokesperson added, there was also a secondary thought the Amundsen might not return in time because of its overburdened function as an icebreaker at the Gulf of St. Lawrence following winter.
The thing is a sensitive one for Dr. Fortier and ArcticNet, the academic-research organization for which he acts as scientific manager. To make decent use of this Amundsen, the system depends upon 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 boat a decade and a half ago. However, the ship spends only a part of its time as a floating laboratory and every year it contrasts between that job and ice breaking.
Last spring, with heavy ice conditions off the Newfoundland coast, the Coast Guard chose to maintain the Amundsen on icebreaker responsibility, delaying the start of its own scientific work and forcing the cancellation of a Hudson Bay expedition leg. The decision meant that experiments, long prepared, weren’t completed and, for some graduate students, work required to complete PhDs was postponed for at least a year. The longer-term effect is that studies that rely on ecological measurements made at regular intervals become clinically endangered when there are gaps in the document.
In 2014, the Amundsen was likewise retasked with very little caution when two additional icebreakers were directed by the federal Conservative government to travel to the North Pole in a series of Canadian sovereignty. Now, the cancellation of the Greenland trip again reveals how scheduling and other priorities can take precedence over the ship’s scientific returns.
The frustration, Dr. Fortier explained, is that other non-Arctic countries such as Britain, France, China and South Korea are pressing forward with entirely dedicated search boats for working in the Arctic without such limitations. Canada, which manages a huge share of Arctic land, risks being left behind as climate change accelerates the conversion of northern ecosystems and the communities that rely on them.
Dr. Fortier said he’s been working on ways to fund another vessel for Arctic research in Canada through private and academic sponsors he estimates would cost $150-million. In contrast, the Diefenbaker, the next generation Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker, is estimated to be launched around the mid-2020s with a cost of over $1-billion.
In the Quebec assembly, the biggest annual Arctic science conference in the nation, researchers are set to go over every facet of the changing North, from marine life to human health. But in the background there’s some doubt as ArcticNet’s federal funding formally expires in March.
By being parsimonious with its own resources, the organization will have a small research program this season, executive director Leah Braithwaite said. Additionally, it will have a chance to compete for funding in the new year, something which was previously banned for research networks which have already won national money twice (in the case of ArcticNet, for 2 successive seven-year cycles). However, the pool of available financing is smaller than ArcticNet’s recent budget, Ms. Braithwaite stated, even if the system is successful it is going to probably be making due with less and working around a “gap year” in its own program.