From the depths of the Northwest Passage to Baffin Island and beyond, science has stalled in the Arctic.
The pandemic that has gripped the world is also wiping out a full field season of research in the northernmost region of Canada.
“It’s going to be this famous missing year of data in Arctic reconnaissance,” Donald McLennan, a terrestrial biologist who has worked in the region, told CTV News.
“Not everything was lost, but a lot was lost. Hopefully it won’t be two years [gone].”
McLennan, a senior scientst with POLAR Knowledge Canada, hasn’t missed an Arctic field season in 47 years. But he spent this field season in Winnipeg.
He, like hundreds of researchers who hail from southern parts of Canada, was barred from traveling up north for the summer as northern communities cut off visitors to prevent COVID-19 from spreading into their region.
The strategy worked. Since the pandemic began, there have been just 15 cases in Yukon, five cases in the Northwest Territories and zero cases in Nunavut.
But the toll on science has been severe.
“There’s an army of researchers that go north in the summer,” McLennan said. “I mean we had to cancel forty projects at the high Arctic research station, with probably over one hundred people. And that’s just our station.”
For countless PhD and graduate students who had a limited window to gather their data, this could be hugely detrimental to their schooling. Scientists at the University of Laval could lose data from more than 100 monitoring stations that record weather patterns, permafrost and how the Arctic is warming.
“It’s truly a catastrophic year for us,” Gilles Gauthier, scientific director of the Centre D’Etudes Nordiques, told CTV News.
He added that many of the automated stations they have to gather data do not have satellite connections or any way to store data long-term without regular maintenance.
“Every summer we need to go up there to retrieve the data, do the maintenance, change the batteries and do the usual repair. None of that has taken place this year,” he said.
“Some of these records, data records, are 30 years or more of continuous monitoring, so it’s a terrible loss for these long-term time series. We’re not able to retrieve any of the data from virtually 95 per cent of these systems.”
Gauthier said that they have nine stations throughout the eastern Arctic, including a research station at the northernmost point in Canada, on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut.
“It’s a very important research area,” he said, adding that this region contains the “very last permanent ice shelf in Canada.”
As the climate crisis continues, studying the loss of these ice shelves is important to understanding the planet’s warming.
“Some of these ice shelf have been in place for thousands of years, and they’re just breaking up at the moment,” Gauthier said. “There’s still a few last remnants, but the bulk of these ice shelves are just broken and disappear[ing] due to climate warming in the past decade, so it’s a very important site for us to study change happening in the Arctic.”
Researchers made it clear that despite the months of lost science, the decision to shut down the Arctic was absolutely the right one.
“First priority is protecting Northern citizens […] and there wouldn’t be a scientist who would disagree that,” McLennan said. “That’s more important even than losing another year of science. That’s the bottom line.
“There is zero COVID in Nunavut right now, and we want to keep it that way.”
Gauthier pointed out that many northern communities are predominantly Inuit and First Nations communities where — due to limited access to health care and insufficient housing in many places — residents would likely be more vulnerable if COVID-19 made its way into a community.
“If COVID-19 gets into these communities, it could [cause] lots of damage to these people,” he said.
But with months of handling the pandemic under Canada’s belt and another field season coming up, researchers are hoping that a safe way forward might be found, so that another year of science does not go down the drain — while still ensuring that northern communities remain safe.
In the Southern Hemisphere, they’ve found that safe way forward, through quarantining and testing which allowed scientists to return to Antarctica just last week.
“They’re absolutely certain they’re not taking any COVID to Antarctica,” McLennan said, praising the care that the Antarctic scientists are taking.
And that same concept has brought the non-profit Arctic Research Foundation to Great Slave Lake. Working with the government of the Northwest Territories, this is one of the only research ships continuing work in Canada’s North, and is performing a similar level of quarantining and testing in order to ensure safety.
“It can be done,” McLennan said. “And I’m pretty sure that if it’s looking like next season isn’t going to happen, you’ll see people making arrangements to do the quarantining, to do the testing to make sure we can get up there safely and do our research.”
McLennan believes that this year underlines the need for northern research to rely less on strangers coming up from the south, and instead work more in harmony with those who already live in the regions.
While scientists wait for a clear plan forward, it’s partnership with northern communities that will continue to be essential in the pandemic.
The next field season may seem far off, but researchers have to plan ahead many months in advance in order to have the equipment and accommodations sorted.
For now, all researchers can do is hope for the best.
“We’re planning as though we’re going to be there,” McLennan said. “So we have everything in place to go there, and then whatever extra we have to do for COVID, we’ll do that, and then we’ll just see what happens.”