June 17, 2017, by Tim Radford
Icebergs off the Newfoundland coast shift the focus to Search and Rescue.
Image: By Gérald Tapp, via Wikimedia Commons
Canadian scientists have to think again as unusual Arctic warmth puts shipping at risk and icebergs freeze climate research plans.
LONDON, 17 June, 2017 – Off the coast of Canada climate change has forced scientists into a drastic change of course as icebergs freeze climate research they had planned.
Scientists have abandoned their plans to explore the impact of climate change on the Hudson Bay because global warming in the Arctic has brought iceberg hazard to shipping off the coasts of Newfoundland.
So Canada’s icebreaker Amundsen, a research ship with 22 laboratories and 65 scientific systems, has been switched from long-term understanding of climate change to short-term air and sea rescue duties.
And a four-year study of the Hudson Bay System that involved 40 scientists from five universities at a cost of $17m has, for 2017, been cancelled.
The story begins far to Canada’s north: the Arctic is one of the most rapidly warming regions of the planet, thanks to climate change driven by greenhouse gas emissions from human combustion of fossil fuel.
The autumn of 2016 was unusually warm, with Arctic temperatures a full 20°C higher in November than normal for that time of year.
Arctic ice has been thinning, and the area of frozen sea in the high latitudes has been shrinking. The late arrival of the winter freeze, and the unusual temperatures, mean that conditions in the spring presented problems as heavy ice began the journey south, and newspaper reports in April warned of iceberg hazards for the Straits of Belle Isle, off Newfoundland.
As a consequence, the Amundsen had to be diverted from its research mission in the Hudson Bay to safety duties along the Atlantic coast. The first leg of an Arctic research mission that should have kept the scientists busy for 133 days was put on hold.
Safety at risk
“Climate-related changes in Arctic sea ice not only reduce its extent and thickness but also increase its mobility, meaning that ice conditions are likely to become more variable and severe conditions such as these will occur more often,” said David Barber, the expedition chief scientist, who also directs the Centre for Earth Observation Science at the University of Manitoba.
“Considering the severe ice conditions and the increasing demand for Search and Rescue operations and ice escort, we decided to cancel the BaySys mission.
“A second week of delay meant our research objectives just could not be safely achieved – the challenge for us all was that the marine ice hazards were exceedingly difficult for the maritime industry, the Canadian coastguard, and science,” Professor Barber said.
Until 2015, the then government of Canada dismissed alarms about climate change and tried to stifle scientific discussion.
“Climate change is not something that is going to happen in the future – it is already here . . . Canada is ill prepared to deal with the realities”
So it is an extra irony that, now that Canadian scientists have government backing for their research, at least one project has been temporarily sabotaged by the changing climate.
It may not be the end of research this year: scientists promise that some aspects of the planned study should begin in July.
But, says the University of Manitoba release, “climate change is not something that is going to happen in the future – it is already here.”
And, says the university, the experience “clearly illustrates that Canada is ill prepared to deal with the realities of climate change.” – Climate News Network
Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.