Ottawa grants $154M to Dalhousie-led study on North Atlantic and climate change

·3 min read
Researchers are shown aboard Germany's RV Maria S. Merian in the Labrador Sea. (Dariia Atamanchuk - image credit)
Researchers are shown aboard Germany's RV Maria S. Merian in the Labrador Sea. (Dariia Atamanchuk - image credit)

Dalhousie University in Halifax will lead what it calls "the most intensive investigation ever into the ocean's role in climate change" thanks to $154-million in federal funding announced Friday.

The research program is getting a piece of $1.4 billion awarded to Canadian universities by the federal government through the Canada First Research Excellence Fund.

Dalhousie and three partner schools will focus on understanding how the North Atlantic helps regulate global climate.

"It's super important because it really puts Canada in the forefront of ocean climate research," says Anya Waite of the Dalhousie-based Ocean Frontier Institute.

The other participants in the study are Memorial University in St. John's, Université Laval and L'Université du Québec à Rimouski.

Why the North Atlantic matters

Oceans help protect the planet from the worst impacts of global warming, but exactly how and for long are key questions.

The North Atlantic may hold the answers.

It has been called a lung of the ocean because atmospheric oxygen is transferred into the deeps in places like the Labrador Sea.

Kat Fupsova
Kat Fupsova

"This supports work on understanding the mechanism of the North Atlantic," says Waite. "How it actually absorbs carbon, whether that's going to change, is it going to re-release the carbon that it has absorbed or not, and how is that trajectory looking forward."

The research has three objectives.

The first is reducing uncertainty about the ocean's role in climate change to improve climate change forecasting, adaptation and technologies to conduct ocean research.

Research will also explore mitigation measures, including carbon dioxide storage below the seabed, and ensuring coastal communities adapt equably.

'The extreme importance of the ocean'

For ocean chemist Doug Wallace, the award validates study of the North Atlantic underway at Dalhousie for years.

"I think it's a pretty big signal that the direction set some time ago was right," says Wallace, who is science director of the Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response Network at Dalhousie.

Mark Crosby/CBC
Mark Crosby/CBC

"It also emphasizes the extreme importance of the ocean in the climate question and that has sometimes been missed especially in Canada. The awarding of a grant of this size suggests that it is front and centre, which is good."

How the Labrador Sea breathes

What's called the North Atlantic carbon sink absorbs 30 per cent of carbon taken in by the global ocean annually, Dalhousie said in announcing funding for its Transforming Climate Action project.

The ocean between Labrador and Greenland absorbs dissolved oxygen that is moved down the water column through a seasonal "trap door" that opens in winter and injects air bubbles created in winter storms.

Wintertime cooling makes oxygen-rich surface water denser and heavy enough to sink to a depth of two kilometres, where the oxygen is dispersed by currents.

Understanding the process and how it may be altered by climate change is a focus of international interest.

Dariia Atamanchuk
Dariia Atamanchuk

Waite says the grant is an important commitment by Canada.

"The sheer scale of it puts us in the international arena in a very strong way. We are now able to convene conversations with the other big observers like the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Norway and bring the research community together to answer some really big questions about our climate."