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The future of Canada’s polar research uncertain as season of exploration ends

Ivan Semeniuk, The Globe's science reporter, was aboard the Amundsen on a weeks-long scientific journey to explore the impact of the warming climate and northern development on the ocean.

On board the Amundsen you never have to look out a porthole to know if you're heading somewhere.

You can tell by the repeating snap – a sound halfway between a cricket and a castanet – generated by the sonar system that continuously maps the sea floor whenever the ship is in motion.

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If the Amundsen is travelling over the polar continental shelf, the snap comes about once a second. Last month, as we crossed the Canada Basin, the deepest part of the Beaufort Sea, the interval grew to nearly ten seconds.

Each snap is a reminder that the Amundsen, a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker that is specially outfitted for science, is exploring a new frontier. Until recently, many of the places where it ventures were perpetually covered in ice.

From ocean salinity and acidity, to methane and trace metal readings in the water, much of the measuring and sampling that is done on the ship is being done in a systematic way in these locations for the first time. And it's largely done by younger researchers and graduate students who relish the opportunity to be working where so few have worked before.

"It's actually awesome, to be honest," said Jordan Grigor, a doctoral student at Laval University who studies a little known but abundant group of marine worms called chaetognaths.

"Definitely the suite of skills you learn on the ship is much more than you'd ever get just by staying back in the lab."

Ultimately, the data gathering is aimed at creating a baseline of knowledge that will help researchers understand the epic transformation that is under way in the region, driven by a changing climate and the growing promise of Arctic development.

And because the work is expected to provide a crucial reference point for decades to come, it seems all the more astonishing – including to international collaborators – that the Amundsen's tenure as Canada's premier platform for Arctic marine science could soon be coming to an end.

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Built in 1979 (when it was called the Franklin) the Amundsen was retooled and rechristened for Arctic research starting in 2003 with funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

Since then, scientific activities on the ship have been co-ordinated through ArcticNet, a multi-institution research consortium that is headquartered at Laval University.

Following a complete overhaul of its diesel engines in 2012, the Amundsen shows every indication of being seaworthy for many more years to come. Yet ArcticNet will come to an end in March, 2018, a deadline that allows just three more seasons of the kind of work that has made it a mainstay of Canada's northern research effort.

This has nothing to do with tightening budgets or the politics of climate change. Unlike what has been happening in some other parts of the research community, ArcticNet has enjoyed robust support from successive governments – more than $100-million has been spent so far on the Amundsen refit and ArcticNet's activities. This in turn has helped Canada maintain its standing as a major player in the world of Arctic science.

Officially, it was created as a Network of Centres of Excellence, a federally funded entity that by law can only operate for a maximum of two seven-year funding stints – or 14 years. (For networks created more recently, it's a maximum of three five-year stints).

The rule prevents such networks from morphing into fixtures that require indefinite government support. But in the case of ArcticNet, the best-funded such network to date, with infrastructure and expertise that would be extraordinarily costly to replace, it creates a looming dilemma: Somehow, government agencies and researchers have to find a way to maintain what the Amundsen represents – and soon – but they must invent a different way of doing it.

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With the world's longest Arctic coastline to manage and plenty of social and economic drivers to pursue research in the North, it's "inconceivable" that any Canadian government would allow the extensive research programs that are supported by the Amundsen and ArcticNet to simply dissolve, said Michael Byers, an ArcticNet member and a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia who specializes in Arctic sovereignty.

"The name of the funding mechanism might change but the work must continue, because important national interests are at stake," Dr. Byers said.

Canada is one of only seven countries operating research icebreakers in the Arctic – a list that also includes the United States, Russia, China, Germany, Sweden and South Korea. And as the Arctic increasingly becomes ice-free, other countries without icebreaking capability are taking the opportunity to investigate and monitor the region.

One foggy afternoon during the Amundsen's travels in the Beaufort last month we encountered the Mirai, an oceanographic research ship operated by the Japanese Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology.

"It's nice to know we're not the only nerds up here," quipped Louis Fortier, ArcticNet's scientific director.

Most of the time, the Amundsen seems utterly alone in a world of water and ice, but as the Japanese ship emerged from the mist and radioed its greetings this notion quickly evaporated.

Japan is one of many countries without territory in the Arctic that nevertheless have interests in the region – which include the impact of Arctic climate change on weather patterns further south, and the implications of an ice-free northern corridor for Asia-European trade.

Similarly, for Canada, there is a direct link between scientific knowledge and the ability to anticipate and manage the social and economic forces at play in the North.

Dr. Fortier said the universities that have been major participants in ArcticNet to date are discussing how to co-ordinate their efforts after ArcticNet expires.

But one way in which Canada differs from some other countries involved in Arctic research, including Japan, is its lack of a national institute devoted to polar science.

This gap could be addressed in part by the arrival of the $160-million Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS), which is under construction in Cambridge Bay.

"With the development and implementation of CHARS and its science program we're going to see a big leap forward," when the station opens in 2017, said David Scott, executive director of the Canadian Polar Commission.

However, the objectives of CHARS are oriented toward applied science and they relate more immediately to northern development – and primarily on land. There will still be a need for marine science in the Arctic and for science with a longer time horizon that allows researchers to understand what is happening to the region in the long term.

Back on the Amundsen, that work continues for now thanks to a long-running and mutually beneficial partnership between ArcticNet and the Coast Guard. Neither has the budget to maintain the ship year round, but by splitting its time and operating costs between science in the summer and routine icebreaking in the winter, they have made it possible for Canada to build up a formidable research legacy in the Arctic. Its latest stint in the North will end this week when it returns to port in Quebec City.

The partnership has worked in other ways too, with the crew on the ship lending their practical expertise at sea to help advance the scientists' research goals. Many of the Coast Guard personnel who work on the Amundsen repeatedly request the assignment, despite the fact that it means a heavier workload, and also sharing tight quarters when the ship is loaded with scientists in addition to the crew.

"It's more like a family because you're working with them," said Stéphane Massicotte, the Amundsen's bosun, who oversees the science operations on the foredeck, including the raising and lowering of nets, instruments and other sampling tools. "The crew get to learn what the scientists are doing and that makes them want to come back to the ship, because they want to participate."

Jean Renaud, a steward on the Amundsen, makes a point of welcoming newcomers because, "in the icebreaker you have to break the ice."

Community matters to the people on board and to their work, he added, because "It's a small world in the middle of nowhere."

With the Arctic, and the planet, apparently heading into uncharted waters, the thought seemed to sum up what the Amundsen's science mission is all about.

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