This summer, scientists from the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre are heading north to begin innovative Arctic research projects both below and above the ocean’s surface in collaboration with Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR), the new federal agency responsible for advancing Canada’s knowledge of the Arctic and for strengthening Canadian leadership in polar science and technology.

Canada’s Arctic is the largest, yet least populated region in Canada, taking up more than 40 per cent of the country’s landmass. It’s undergoing unprecedented change, warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet; the summer sea ice that is so important to this ecosystem is projected to melt within a generation. The Inuit are keenly aware of these changes and would like to see them documented and understood, while very few other Canadians are there to witness them.

Cambridge Bay in the High Arctic.

The community of Cambridge Bay in the High Arctic.

“The Arctic Ocean is melting at an astonishing rate; conducting ecosystem studies and tracking cetacean sightings will enable our scientists to examine how the changing landscape may be impacting aquatic life at a critical time,” said Dr. John Nightingale, president and CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium. “We welcome this new partnership with Polar Knowledge Canada to collaborate on a unique High Arctic project to bring understanding to those changes in order to plan responsible and sustainable development in Canada’s North.”

In order to understand the Arctic’s complex underwater ecosystems, and to interpret the effects of change, wide-scope baseline surveys will be undertaken through first-hand observations by the Vancouver Aquarium Arctic Dive Team. The goals of the Nearshore Ecosystem Survey are to identify sites of special interest or ecological sensitivity; to create a dynamic catalogue of sites that can be referenced by future researchers; and to provide a set of data to which future surveys can be compared. The Aquarium dive team will be in the Arctic Aug. 21-27, visiting a range of dive sites in the vicinity of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, and hosting community events along with POLAR.

Vancouver Aquarium Arctic research

Vancouver Aquarium scientists and researchers working with other groups in the Arctic.

“Polar Knowledge Canada is very pleased to be working with the Vancouver Aquarium on this project,” said Dr. David J. Scott, the organization’s president. “This kind of baseline marine data is key to supporting decisions regarding responsible and sustainable development in Canada’s North.”

This summer also marks the start of an Arctic Cetacean Sightings Data Collection Program, piloted in partnership with ecotourism operator One Ocean Expeditions. Climate change brings challenges for Arctic whales and dolphins: warming, water, loss of sea ice, changes in prey abundance and increased human activity and development. Of the 14 species and populations of cetaceans that spend time in Arctic waters, five are listed as “at-risk” under the Species at Risk Act. Researchers are racing against time to learn more about the abundance, occurrence and distribution of these species, but are hampered by the high cost and limited availability of research vessels in the Arctic.

Vancouver Aquarium Arctic Research

More research is needed to better understand how the Arctic is changing.

Passengers on board One Ocean Expeditions in the Arctic will help collect scientifically valuable cetacean sightings data for the Marine Mammal Research Program, part of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Coastal Ocean Research Institute. Researchers will then verify, analyze and curate the data to help plan and implement strategies to help mitigate the impact of shipping and development on Arctic whales and dolphins.

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