A $17-million research expedition to study the impact of climate change in Canada's Arctic was halted off the coast of Newfoundland, and ultimately cancelled earlier this month, when an icebreaker carrying the 40 scientists was diverted to break up hazardous sea ice that floated south, due in part to climate change.
The ironic twist of fate not only speaks to the rapidly changing conditions in the Arctic region, but also highlights the desperate need for research to guide Canada's arctic policy for new waterways set to open up to the world, according researchers.
"It is an environment that is changing very fast," Tim Papakyriakou, the director of the University of Manitoba's Centre for Earth Observation Science, told CTV News. "Canada has more coastline than any other country in the world. Seventy-five per cent of that coastline is in the Arctic. With the receding ice, we are going to see more and more activity."
The team of researchers from five Canadian universities boarded the Canadian Research Icebreaker CCGS Amundsen six days early in late May, bound for arctic waters. But warming temperatures caused this year's high arctic ice to be thinner than usual, making it easier for wind and ocean currents to push pieces further south down Canada's coast.
"This is the consequence of change in the Arctic, the rising temperature," explained Papakyriakou.
The European Space Agency is raising concerns as well. Satellite images released this week show some of the oldest and thickest high Arctic ice flows disappearing at a considerable rate.
Instead of pursuing the scientific mission, the Amundsen spent several days clearing a build-up of ocean ice in the Strait of Belle Isle. The delay meant the ship would arrive at its destination too late to complete the researcher's 2017 objectives. The four-year project was put off until next year.
This is not the first time an attempt to conduct Arctic research was thwarted by an unusual build-up of ice. University of British Columbia oceanographer Philippe Tortell was part of a 2015 voyage that faced a similar disruption while studying Arctic Ocean conditions.
About a week into his trip, the ship's captain ordered all scientific work halted so the vessel could assist with ice breaking along the eastern shore of Hudson Bay.
"That two week delay had a significant impact on the program. We were able to finish some of the work. Obviously we had to make some significant changes," he said.
Both researchers agree that Canada cannot afford such delays. They anticipate the loss of sea ice and changing flow patterns could make much of the Arctic open for navigation in the coming decades.
Research published last December in the journal Geophysical Research Letters shows shipping significantly increased between 1990 and 2015 in the Hudson Strait, Beaufort Sea, regions in southern route of the Northwest Passage, Davis Strait, and southern Baffin Bay.
Vast pockets of undiscovered oil and gas resources could also spur a surge in arctic interest. The amount of undiscovered oil deposits inside the Arctic Circle region has been estimated to be as large as 90 billion barrels, for example.
"As we look to the future, 10, 15, 20 years down the road, it is undoubtable that the amount of commercial traffic, commercial activity, perhaps oil and gas exploration is going to increase remarkably," said Tortell. "That is going to put real pressure on Canada to maintain ecological and political stewardship of this vast coastline."
He believes the research to guide that stewardship is already being woefully outstripped by rising temperatures.
"It is at the point now where we don't even have a good baseline of what normal is in the arctic," Tortell said. "I'm not sure that Canada is at all equipped to deal with the kind of changes that are coming."