Serious setback for the on-going Canadian Arctic GEOTRACES field programme

As most of you know, summer 2015 is the culmination of five years of preparation to coordinate a three-pronged field programme between Canada, Germany and the USA. The goal of this project is to integrate Arctic Ocean measurements into the global network of geochemical oceanic sections conducted as part of the international GEOTRACES programme. Preparation for this summer’s work started after a meeting in Washington DC in 2010 and the programme was cemented at a workshop in Vancouver BC in 2012. Canada was to enter the Arctic Ocean from the Labrador Sea through the Arctic Archipelago, the US would start from the Pacific and Bering Strait, while Germany would start from the Norwegian Sea through Fram Strait. Canadian funding was secured from NSERC’s Climate Change and Atmospheric Research programme, and our US and German colleagues obtained funding from their respective governments. Synergy between the three countries was viewed as a key aspect of the overall research programme.

The Canadian participants departed Quebec City on July 10th, heading to their first stations in the Labrador Sea, where they were also tasked with collecting intercalibration samples for the French GEOTRACES programme (GEOVIDE) which completed an east to west section in the North Atlantic last year. Although we were somewhat hampered by strong winds, we managed to successfully complete our work on time. There are only three GEOTRACES Principal Investigators on board, with a large number of students and postdocs, all of whom performed in an exemplary manner. We also worked very well with the Canadian Coast Guard crew members who were very dedicated in helping us with the deployment of our sampling gear and in optimizing the use of ship time. We were feeling very optimistic heading towards Baffin Bay for our next stations, when we abruptly did a 180 degree turn and headed at 16 knots to Hudson Bay. Given the lack of other Coast Guard icebreaking capacity in the region, our captain had received direct orders from Ottawa to break ice for commercial vessels that supply remote communities in this area. While this is undoubtedly an important mission, one should question why it has to be done at the expense of our scientific programme. As of his writing, the ship has been diverted for 6 days and it remains unclear when we will be able to return to work. At best, we will be back to our next station late next week, i.e. about 12 days late and longer delays are also possible. Our original programme consisted of 21 days for sampling and 20 days for transit, with a firm end date on August 20th. Such a delay will have inevitably a significant negative impact on our research programme. We are scrambling to revise our science plan and minimize the impact of lost time, but we cannot do so in earnest before knowing the time of arrival to our next station.

Although this situation arises from an unfortunate set of circumstances and is nobody’s fault, it does point out the blatant inadequacies for ship time funding, allocation, and availability for oceanographic research in Canada. This is best exemplified not only by our current predicament but also by the contrast between the Canadian contribution to the international GEOTRACES programme and that of most of the other 30 countries involved. This contrast is clearly revealed when perusing the present website. Canada has claimed to be a country where “excellence” in oceanographic research is conducted. Indeed, the country counts a good number of dedicated scientists conducting research at sea, who are equal to their peers from other countries. The limited scale of Canada’s contribution to GEOTRACES science stems from the very limited access to sea-going infrastructure, the lack of a dedicated fleet for ocean research, and the lack of sensible mechanisms for the allocation of ship time needed to conduct large scale operations. These inadequacies were also pointed out in a recent report on the state of ocean science in Canada, written by the Council of Canadian Academies. While improving the infrastructure takes time, even when there is a will, immediate organizational changes to alleviate this problem need be taken by our funding agencies if the performance of the Canadian oceanographic community is to live up to Canada’s ambition to remain a leading nation in this area of scientific research central to Canada’s interests.

Chief Scientist of the cruise: Roger François (University of Bristish Columbia)