‘Climate change won’t wait’: COVID-19 upends ambitious Canadian ocean research projects

COVID-19 restrictions are holding up ambitious research on ocean climate change and its impact on coastal communities in Atlantic Canada and the North.

Measures to stop the spread of the virus have delayed or cancelled field work, data collection and deployment of equipment in the northwest Atlantic and Arctic approaches.

Physical distancing on board ships has displaced scientists. The Nunatsiavut government has requested no non-essential travel into the region, effectively eliminating access to northern Labrador.

“We simply cannot do certain types of research right now and field research is not happening,” said Anya Waite, scientific director of the Ocean Frontier Institute.

This week, the institute, a consortium of Dalhousie University, Memorial University and the University of Prince Edward Island, announced $16 million in funding for six research projects running to 2023.

The work has been underway for weeks — long enough to be hindered by the pandemic. Waite said “deliverables” — jargon for what is expected in the final product — may be scaled back because “some data holes” cannot be filled.

‘Climate change won’t wait’

The Ocean Frontier Institute brought together experts from across Canada and around the world to examine the climate in the northwest Atlantic Ocean and Arctic approaches.

Researchers are adapting as best they can because the work is so important, Waite said.

“Climate change won’t wait. We need to keep pursuing these projects and we need to keep people focused on the big issues that are going to impact us all in the future,” she said.

Anna Metaxas of Dalhousie University leads a groundbreaking study that for the first time will attempt to incorporate traditional Indigenous knowledge into a scientific investigation of climate change impacts in Nunatsiavut in northern Labrador.

The Southwest Brook flowing into Southwest Arm of Saglek Fjord. (Heiko Wittenborn/Parks Canada)

Inuit will help design the study, and identify questions, issues and species relevant to them.

“Western science has certain ways of doing things, of asking questions and mastering those questions. Those are, one would say, very rigorous scientifically, but they’re also very narrow,” Metaxas said.

“What the Inuit community is going to bring to this project is thousands of years of knowledge of the ecosystems and how they have been changing over time, something that we do not have.”

Metaxas credits the Ocean Frontier Institute for putting up $4 million for a project that goes outside the traditional scientific method.

‘Aiming for 2021’

“If it works, it will be great. But it’s risky because some elements may not work,” she said.

It’s an ambitious effort, but made more difficult because so far this year, she and the other scientists cannot meet in person with Inuit or take the measurements they need because of the Nunatsiavut restrictions.

“We’re certainly aiming for 2021 as soon as we can get up there. But I think 2020 is still difficult, but it’s entirely up to their government,” Metaxas said.

Upper Kangalaksiorvik Lake in Labrador. (Heiko Wittenborn/Parks Canada)

She has already lost a July trip to the area.

She’s hoping Parks Canada, which is contributing ship time, will be able to carry a team into coastal waters for data collection later this year.

Ship time has already been a disappointment for Erin Bertrand, another Dalhousie scientist, who is studying the Labrador Sea, known as the lungs of the ocean for its role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sinking it deep into the ocean.

Physical distancing hindering research

She’s part of a $4-million project to study how tiny microscopic organisms called phytoplankton capture carbon dioxide and, through the food chain in the ocean, remove it from the atmosphere.

“The more carbon from those plankton that sinks, the less stays in the atmosphere. And that sinking depends on a lot of things. It depends on how much plankton grow. How stressed they are, the shape and size of those plankton, who’s eating them and how those consumers poop, what shape their poop is,” Bertrand said.

A lack of Canadian research vessels meant her team was relying on Irish and German ships to carry out research in the Labrador Sea where the German vessel R.V. Maria S. Merian was going to deploy critical instruments in September.

Caribou at Ramah Bay in Labrador. (Heiko Wittenborn/Parks Canada)

But Canadian scientists were dropped from the sea roster when physical distancing requirements reduced the numbers allowed on board.

A cruise planned for June 2021 on the Irish Celtic Explorer has been delayed to 2022 by the coronavirus.

These multi-year, multimillion dollar projects are big enterprises.

Looking for workarounds

The Labrador Sea and Scotian Shelf carbon pump study, for example, involves Bertrand and 17 other investigators from Dalhousie and Memorial University made up of oceanographers, and Indigenous and legal scholars.

In addition, 22 other collaborators from five different countries are also contributing.

Bertrand remains hopeful.

Iceberg in Saglek Bay in Labrador. (Heiko Wittenborn/Parks Canada)

“Even though we’ve lost out on some of our access to the ocean, we’re gonna be able to make some important new advances in understanding how our ocean in this region is going to respond to climate change and what that means for the changes that our communities are going to be facing,” she said.

Both the carbon pump and Nunatsiavut study are getting more time to complete their work and looking for workarounds.

Metaxas said her team is considering drones for shoreline assessments, looking for local people to conduct samples where possible and holding webinars over the next three weeks with the partners in her project.

“But Zoom can only do so much,” she said.

4 other projects approved

This is the second round of project funding by the Ocean Frontier Institute, which was started in 2016 with $94 million from the Trudeau government.

In addition to the Nunavaist and biological carbon pump studies, four other projects were approved:

  • $1.2 million to examine the connection between ocean, marine life and human health.
  • $1.9 million to explore offshore groundwater off Prince Edward Island.
  • $2 million for ocean mapping to understand the impact of climate on marine life at or near the ocean floor.
  • $4 million to help design more sustainable coastal infrastructure.
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