Canada's Three Oceans (C3O)

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Three great oceans – the Atlantic, the Arctic and the Pacific – surround Canada, and every school child can point them out on the map. What most people rarely contemplate, though, is that these oceans have no boundaries that set them apart from one another. The waters from the Pacific flow through the Arctic Ocean and out to the Atlantic, representing a great continuum of water moving around our country. For the science community this is a fundamental point, given how significant a factor the oceans are in global climate changes now underway. Indeed, to have any hope of making sense of climate change in the grand scheme of things, an understanding of the role of the oceans in the equation is absolutely critical – and their interconnectedness is an important place to start.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has designed an exciting new scientific project to do precisely that. Its leader, Eddy Carmack, a research scientist at the Institute of Ocean Sciences at Sidney, British Columbia, says that both the science and the logistics of the Canada's Three Oceans expedition (C3O for short) are based on the very fact of this interconnectedness. He explains, “If we want to responsibly track changes, we absolutely have to start with the largest scale possible.” And C3O is large scale all the way! Its goal is nothing less than to carry out a systematic series of measurements for a broad range of physical and biological aspects of the three oceans, from the top of the water column to depths of 1,000 metres and from plankton to whales, over an immense geographic area. 

To carry out the research, teams of scientists are hitching a ride on two Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers, the Halifax-based CCGS Louis St-Laurent and the Victoria-based CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier, as they travel 15,000 kilometres across the Arctic in the course of their current mission. It's a perfect fit, as the track of the icebreakers traverses our three oceans, encircling the north of Canada from Vancouver Island to Nova Scotia. Both ships are designed so that they can be quickly transformed into floating research platforms, complete with sophisticated laboratories, for the duration of C3O. The economies achieved by piggybacking C3O onto an existing Canadian Coast Guard program are hugely important, considering how logistically challenging and expensive a place the Arctic can be to conduct science.

With the icebreaker CCGS Louis St-Laurent in the background, the science team sets up a through-ice mooring for year-round deployment of equipment that will measure such aspects of the ocean as its current, temperature and salinity.

C3O very much owes its existence to International Polar Year (IPY), which is being marked in 2007 and 2008. This international initiative is enabling and funding a tremendous amount of research in both the northern and southern polar regions. To use the professional lingo, C3O is an “observationally driven” climate change program, meaning that the scientists have to get out of their labs or offices, and physically go look at and measure everything of interest to their research goals. In C3O's first field season in 2007, over 90 people went to sea with just that purpose. The data that they collected is fuelling the work of 40 principal scientific investigators, and it includes a myriad of measurements of the ocean waters, marine sediments and the creatures to be found in the three oceans.

C3O is by no means starting from nothing, as bits and piece of this data have been collected over the past decade through many DFO and collaborative projects, but as Carmack explains, “IPY has provided a unique opportunity to create a focused program of data collection and do all the things we have talked about that are necessary for the creation of a proper baseline for assessing change in the Arctic.” C3O, he notes, is the only IPY project that looks at the Arctic Ocean in the context of the two sub-Arctic oceans, with which it is connected.

The icebreakers are truly efficient trawlers of data, in so many ways. As they are underway, seawater is pumped continually into the ship for analysis of such things as temperature, salinity, methane, oxygen and chlorophyll fluorescence. Towed devices such as depth sounders are used to find plankton layers. At selected points, the ship is stopped, and while “on station” collects water samples at different depths down the water column and carries out net hauls so as to examine the creatures living at that point in the ocean. This is just a sampling of the methods used and data collected from aboard the icebreakers. Remotely sensed data from satellites is even used to help calculate ocean currents. All in all, it is a sprawling menu of data, culled using a diversity of methods and technologies.

Outreach with northern communities is an important component of C3O. Here Eddy Carmack (seated, centre) flanked by teacher Linda Hall (right) and David Hik, IPY Executive Director (left) talk with Cambridge Bay students about C3O.

The end product will pull together all this data and produce a “snapshot” of ocean conditions in the summers of 2007 and 2008. This will be an absolutely crucial scientific baseline for future monitoring and assessment of the consequences of global warming on Canada's sub-Arctic and Arctic oceans. The results will be published in many formats, ranging from the highly technical language and data-rich versions needed by the scientific community in support of policy-makers, to innovative plain-language versions that will help a broad audience understand what is happening in our oceans in the context of global warming.

C3O is not only built on large-scale science and logistics, but it also carries the seeds of a large-scale vision for the future of science in the north. The baseline showing the “state of the oceans” that C3O will create is only the first step, and its effectiveness depends upon sustained and systematic monitoring to 2050 and beyond. This is where Carmack sees a long-term role for northern communities. He envisions a future of “community-based scientific franchises,” in which individual communities would take up the monitoring of various aspects of their local environment on an annual basis. This is a truly exciting concept that would bring all sorts of much-needed new “capital” into northern communities: new jobs, new skills necessary to carry out the monitoring work, and new money to fund it. Indeed, it would be a sweet deal for both sides, as the scientific community would be assured of ongoing monitoring, without having to face the challenges and high price tags of mounting data-collecting expeditions to the Arctic.

Without question, though, the largest impact of C3O will be to help us make sense of global warming and how we should prepare ourselves to adapt to the changes it will usher into our lives. And this isn't just about the oceans; it's about how the oceans affect our weather and about the delivery of rain to our landmasses. As Carmack sums it up, “We have to be confident that the base information we are using is right, before we act upon it. C3O is another brick in the structure for preparing for the future.”