Vancouver Aquarium to highlight plight of Arctic ice

Vancouver Aquarium to highlight plight of Arctic ice
A beluga whale in the waters of Cunningham Inlet on the northern shore of Somerset Island in Nunavut. The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre is working to drum up interest in the Arctic among southern Canadians.Photos courtesy of Dr. Valeria Vergara.

Stockwell Day he is not, but Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre president and CEO John Nightingale took a soggy step in that direction in the name of science and for the sake of the Arctic last week.

Far from arriving by SeaDoo in a wetsuit, on Oct. 28 Nightingale stood in chest waders in the waters off Sunset Beach in an attempt to stir up interest in the aquarium and the work it has been doing in eastern Nunavut communities and now in Cambridge Bay, where the new federally run Canadian High Arctic Research Station is being built.

“We don’t mind at all calling what we did yesterday a stunt,” Nightingale said. “We need to engage more people who don’t give this a second thought.”

He told the Journal he wants people in southern Canada to visit the aquarium in person or online and realize they are connected to the northern ecosystem. The aquarium said in a press release some experts believe the Arctic, home to 40 per cent of Canada’s land mass and 70 per cent of its shorelines, could be ice-free for the first time in 2030.

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“Our primary concern is the change the North is going through with warming of the climate,” he said. “People don’t have a clue about the Arctic Ocean; they have no visceral or emotional sense of what it is. We want to grow the choir of people who are interested.”

At the facility in Vancouver, the second phase of the aquarium’s expansion and revitalization will include the new Canada’s Arctic Gallery, where visitors will be immersed in the rapid changes impacting the Arctic and can learn how these environmental concerns are affecting southern Canada. The expansion will also provide larger habitats for beluga whales Aurora and Qila, which will also help foster scientific research and conservation efforts to help protect the species, which has been designated as “near threatened” by the World Wildlife Federation.

Traditional knowledge meets Western science

The aquarium’s scientists are working to establish baseline data with a research focus on near-shore ecology and marine animals in order to be able to track and compare the changes over time. “We don’t have enough baseline information,” Nightingale explained. “There needs to be a combination of historic/traditional knowledge and a combination of some astute, efficient Western science. Some things can be measured with instruments, (but on) some things our records are so spotty in terms of science it’s traditional knowledge that helps calibrate the whole picture.”

Forty-five years after the Vancouver organization first studied the Arctic, its scientists are today working on projects examining the impact of increased underwater noise from shipping traffic on beluga whales, tracking changes to ocean conditions including the impact of increased freshwater in Canada’s Arctic and mapping sea ice loss in order to make travel in the region safer.

“It’s a micro-concern in the global picture but it’s part of assembling the bigger picture.”

The projects involve partnering with other organizations as well as Inuit communities, youth and elders.

“The changes are broad, changes in weather patterns, changes in the ice, which dramatically affects animals, the ecosystem and the peoples who interact with the marine environment in summer and winter,” Nightingale said. “This isn’t something that can be done with a bunch of scientists riding in from the south. There needs to be a collaboration, with some augmentation of (scientific) capacity (by the aquarium).”

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None of the work is being done in the Northwest Territories, but the science that comes out could be applicable there.

“We have done a bit of work in (Tuktoyaktuk) over the years,” he said “I expect as Inuvik and Tuk become more centres of research (for example) with the territorial research centre in Inuvik, I believe our work will spread there as well.”

Warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, the Arctic is quickly losing its sea ice cover and glaciers are melting due to unprecedented changes, according to the aquarium, but the effects will also be felt closer to home in urban cities.

“We are a part of these ecosystems,” Nightingale said. “If people down south think this doesn’t involve them, just wait 50 years and see what happens in sea-level rise.”

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