Major Climate-Change Expedition

Eddy Carmack thinks big. While maps say Canada is surrounded by three oceans, he sees one giant interconnected sea.

And where many researchers are content to theorize about climate change from the comfort of their offices, Carmack is spearheading a 15,000-kilometre “reality check” this summer from Halifax through the Arctic to Victoria.

“We’d be remiss not to do it,” says Carmack, a senior scientist with federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans who is scrambling to complete preparations for the international adventure that heads to sea this weekend.

It has grown to include 90 scientists from several countries and two Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers.

The aim is to provide a continuous 15,000-kilometre track of detailed observations from coast to coast to coast. Carmack says the data is so important he would like to see the monitoring program become an annual event until at least 2050 to document the transformation underway as the climate changes.

“2050 or bust, that’s our motivation,” says Carmack, noting how mid-century is a key benchmark in computer climate models being used to push for massive cuts in global production of greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

“If computer models are bold enough to predict to 2050, I think our country ought to have that date in mind for an observational program,” says Carmack, who stresses the importance of correcting and adjusting models with data from the real world. Canada, and its surrounding waters, is expected to see some of the most dramatic change on the planet as temperatures rise in coming decades.

20 years of collaboration

The monitoring project, called Canada’s Three Oceans, builds on almost 20 years of collaboration between the coast guard and the researchers who have “piggy-backed” their science onto icebreakers’ northern voyages to study everything from ocean currents to polar bears.

Carmack and colleagues Fiona McLaughlin and Svein Vagle of the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Victoria have organized this year’s much more comprehensive program that will continuously collect samples as the ships encircle the country.

Canadian, Japanese and U.S. research agencies are kicking in $6.5 million to finance the project and help pay the $96,000-a-day cost of running the two ships.

The Sir Wilfrid Laurier leaves Victoria on Sunday with one team of scientists. The Louis St. Laurent is due to depart Dartmouth July 4 with another research crew. Fresh teams of scientists and graduate students will join the vessels for each of the five legs of the voyage that is expected to wrap up by early October.

The ships, which will pass each other in the Northwest Passage, will measure temperatures, salinity, oxygen, carbon and nutrient levels of the surface water. They’ll also monitor everything from bacteria to beluga whales and make detours for detailed sampling, down to depths of one kilometre in key locations to get a better read on the ominous shifts being seen in currents flowing in and out of the Arctic.

The project is being kicked off as part of the International Polar Year, a global effort to better understand the polar regions.

But Carmack hopes it will be the beginning of a long-term and sustainable annual program to collect data that could confirm what climate models are suggesting.

Or, he says, to find “surprises’ that the models have not yet stumbled on.