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Canadian Scientists Wanted to Study Climate Change, But Ice Is Melting Too Fast

Canadian Coast Guard

What started out as an expedition to study climate change quickly unraveled into a search-and-rescue for 40 scientists aboard a massive icebreaker boat in Canada’s Hudson Bay, northwest of Quebec.

At this time of year, the bay is generally open and can be easily navigated by any number of boats. For the first time ever, according to the scientists and the Canadian coast guard, the bay was swarmed with massive chunks of ice up to 25 feet thick, making the water too treacherous for countless boats.

So instead of traveling north to the coast of Newfoundland, the crew joined forces with the coast guard to locate and assist struggling boats.

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"The requirements for search and rescue trumped the requirements for science," David Barber, the expedition’s chief scientist, told CBC Canada. "The search and rescue calls were coming in quite fast and furious."

But the irony of the emergency wasn’t lost on the team.

“We’re doing a large-scale climate change study and before we can even get going on it, climate change is conspiring to force us to cancel that study,” Barber told The Guardian.  

Instead of spending valuable time collecting data for a study that was rigorously planned for, the scientists ended up saving the lives of fellow Canadians.

For the coast guard, the icebreaker’s participation was essential.

"It was just extreme ice conditions that required everything that we've got in order to make sure we were able to provide the services," Julie Gascon, the coast guard's assistant commissioner for the central and Arctic region, told CBC Canada.

The team was able to take some measurements. They determined that the Hudson Bay ice chunks had drifted down from the Arctic, another chilling sign of the region’s rapid deterioration, which lost more ice than ever before in 2017.  

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As Arctic ice gets thinner and fragments, it can travel more easily on ocean currents, raising the possibility for ice floes to reach lower waters such as Hudson Bay.

It’s a reminder that the pace of climate change is accelerating, outstripping the ability of scientists to fully grasp what’s going on.

In Greenland, for instance, glaciers are melting so fast that they’ve entered a frightening feedback loop — as ice turns to water, it absorbs more sunlight and heat, provoking more ice to melt, and so on.

Off the coast of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is deteriorating so rapidly from increasing temperatures that studying the year-to-year toll of climate change is becoming challenging for researchers.

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In Alaska, forest fires are becoming more intense each year, overwhelming fire departments and the ability of scientists to figure out the rippling consequences.

For Barber and the crew, the turn of events in Hudson Bay was disappointing mostly because funding is hard to come by.

He’s hoping that another grant will make up for the hundreds of thousands that were squandered preparing the crew for the first leg.

The next leg of the trip begins July 6. Either way, the team might have to reevaluate their objectives.

“We’re very poorly prepared for climate change,” Barber told The Guardian. “We pay lip service to the fact that we think we know it’s coming and society is trying to grapple with the complexity of it, but when it really comes down to brass tacks, our systems are ill prepared for it.”