A team of Canadian scientists is urging the federal government to step up its conservation efforts in the eastern Arctic to try and save some of the last remaining year-round sea ice and the undiscovered organisms that live within it.
In a new article, Witnessing Ice Habitat Collapse in the Canadian Arctic, released Thursday in the journal Science, Carleton University geologist Derek Mueller and biologist Warwick Vincent of Laval University highlight the July 2020 collapse of the Milne Ice Shelf, the last known intact ice shelf in the Canadian Arctic.
Over a two day period, the 4,000 year-old Milne Shelf broke apart, sending 43 per cent of its mass adrift into the Arctic Ocean as smaller ice islands.
The Milne Shelf is located within the Tuvaijuittuq marine protected area, which, perhaps ironically, translates to "the place where the ice never melts" in Inuktitut. It's home to the oldest and thickest sea ice in the Arctic Ocean.
An area roughly the size of Poland, Tuvaijuittuq encircles the Quttinirpaaq National Park on the northeastern corner of Ellesmere Island.
It's part of what scientists believe will be the last portion of the Arctic Ocean to maintain year-round ice — until 2050, that is, by which time the oldest and strongest ice in the Arctic is expected to melt.
In their article, Mueller and Vincent urge the federal government to create a permanent marine protected area that extends across the Canadian Arctic. They also want Ottawa to work with the Greenlandic government to further extend such a protected area east "despite the jurisdictional hurdles."
Permanent protection would mean the area would essentially be a shipping and resource-extraction free zone.
"There's lots of conservation areas being planned but what we were really interested in highlighting was that those could be extended to fully capture some of the vulnerable ecosystems that are at the northern coastline of our planet," Mueller said in an interview with CBC.
Recently, Mueller and his team uncovered small fresh water lakes on the Milne ice shelf that were created from fresh water run-off from nearby glaciers. These lakes are home to tiny microbial organisms, many which have never been seen before.
"We found this really cool community of benthic animals that were living inside the ice shelf. We were just on the cusp of studying those organisms and those are one of the surprise discoveries that one can find in these remote yet vulnerable environments," Mueller says.
"When the ice shelf broke apart we don't think those animals survived."
Mueller says extending the current protected areas of Tuvaijuittuq and Quttinirpaaq National Park would reduce the number of stressors on this already vulnerable ecosystem.
"When humans walk around in an environment they see the seals and the polar bears but they miss, because they're so small, all of the microbes. But they're really at the base of the food web. They are way more complex than you can imagine," Mueller says,
"To understand how these ecosystems function, these ice-dependent microbial ecosystems, before they melt away is what we're trying to do."
Tuvaijuittuq was created in partnership between the federal government and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association. A spokesperson for the QIA says more Inuit knowledge of the area needs to be collected.
The organization says it was planning to conduct an Inuit Knowledge Study of the area this summer but that has been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It says it will be asking communities in the area if they would support changes to the area's boundaries.
Mueller and Vincent are also calling on the federal government to honour its commitments in the Paris Agreement. The Agreement, hashed out in 2015, had 197 signatories committing to hold the global average temperature increase to well below two degrees above pre-industrial levels, with the ultimate goal of limiting the rise to only 1.5 C.
As part of the agreement, Canada committed to reducing its annual greenhouse gas emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.
"Even with COVID our greenhouse gas emissions are still rising. We need to make considerable change to our greenhouse gas emissions and if we can then this last ice area stands a greater chance of remaining into the future," said Mueller.