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Researchers track impact of marine pollution and acidification

University shares in $1.8 million funding from MEOPAR and Irving Shipbuilding to study marine ecosystems in Arctic waters

Water sampling instruments are deployed from the R/V Martin Bergmann, a research vessel in Cambridge Bay on Nunavut’s Victorial Island where University of Calgary researchers are part of the multidisciplinary and multi-institutional Arctic teams studying the vulnerability of marine ecosystems. Photo by Jean-Sébastien Moore

By Andrea Kingwell 
February 24, 2016

The isolated Arctic hamlet of Cambridge Bay on Nunavut’s Victoria Island is 3,500 kilometres and a world away from Halifax, Nova Scotia, but what the two coastal communities share is a treasure trove of scientific information just off their shores.

The water  and the microbes and marine life in it — provide clues to University of Calgary researchers about the way ocean environments could react to changes caused by oil spills, acidification and global warming.

Research teams led by the university’s Casey Hubert, an associate professor in biological sciences and CAIP Chair in Geomicrobiology, and Brent Else, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography, are among the nine ocean projects that have been awarded $1.8 million in funding from the Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response network (MEOPAR) and Irving Shipbuilding Inc. (ISI).

The announcement was made in Ottawa on Feb. 17 by Dr. Douglas Wallace, MEOPAR’s scientific director. Ed McCauley, vice-president (research), was on hand to represent the University of Calgary.

“MEOPAR and Irving Shipbuilding’s leadership in funding and creating the networks that include scientists, industry partners and community members is safeguarding Canada’s vital ecosystems and economic security,” says McCauley. 

“With this broad support, our scientists — Casey Hubert, Brent Else, and the students they’re training — will continue to guide our understanding of the impacts we’re having on marine ecosystems and the communities who rely on them," he says. "These efforts will contribute to creating better environmental management practices.”

Microbes are 'first responders' in an oil spill

Hubert’s team, which includes student research positions supported by the MEOPAR/ISI funding of $113,228 as well as significant in-kind support from other organizations, will create a detailed profile of the marine microbes off the coast of Nova Scotia.

The data will serve as a baseline that offshore marine industries, including the oil and gas sector, can use to monitor their environmental impact.

“Microbial communities are highly sensitive to pollution and can reorganize themselves in ways that new genomic sequencing methods can reliably detect,” says Hubert.

MEOPAR has funded Hubert’s work in the past as well, for a study of biodegradation of oil in the cold marine environment. In any oil spill scenario, Hubert says, marine bacteria are the likely "first responders" to the scene of an accident, and start mitigating the damage caused by hazardous oil compounds.

“The ability of microbes to degrade hydrocarbons is one of the ecosystem services that microbial communities can provide,” explains Hubert.

Understanding the impact of ocean acidification

Else’s team — bolstered by six new research positions with $305,000 from MEOPAR/ISI and additional support from Polar Knowledge Canadaand the Arctic Research Foundation — will  take the team to Arctic waters off Cambridge Bay to look at the vulnerability of marine ecosystems from industry, oil spills, ocean acidification and other impacts.

“We collect water samples, measure, and do a chemical analysis to get a basic sense of the current situation there,” says Else.

The two main problems the team is focused on include protecting the Arctic in the case of an oil spill, and the impact of the acidification of seawater.

“The oceans absorb a lot of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which forms a weak acid,” Else says. “That lowers the pH of the ocean, making it more acidic, and over long periods that can have an impact on the marine ecosystems.”

Along with Hubert and collaborating researchers from McGill University, the University of Manitoba, Laval and others, Else and his team will also be working with community members to better understand the services the marine ecosystem provides to the community, from food, fish and whales, to its cultural and recreational significance.

Unique shipboard research opens doors to in-depth Arctic research

The multidisciplinary and multi-institutional Arctic teams work together on the Martin Bergmann, a research vessel in Cambridge Bay.

“There really is nothing similar anywhere else in the world, to have the vessel in the community, and it gives us some great opportunities to work in the Arctic,” says Else.

Without the Martin Bergmann, made possible by the Arctic Research Foundation, researchers would have to charter a Coast Guard vessel and wait for it to make its way to Cambridge Bay in the summer, leaving a work window of just a few weeks.

Else also has previous funding from MEOPAR, to study sea ice changes in the Northwest Passage, to garner an understanding of how community members — the Inuit — might use scientific information in their decisions to travel to hunt and fish.

The pressures of our rapidly growing global population are driving unprecedented changes in our social, political, cultural and natural systems. The University of Calgary’s Human Dynamics in a Changing World research strategy is addressing our need to understand how we adapt to rapid change, to ensure our security and quality of life.

Learn more about MEOPAR

Created through the federal government of Canada’s Networks of Centres of Excellence Program in 2012, the Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response (MEOPAR) network is building Canada’s capacity to anticipate and respond to marine risk by funding interdisciplinary academic research, developing highly qualified personnel with expertise in marine risk and response, and by connecting academic research and technology to national and international partners in government, industry, and the public sector.

MEOPAR funds interdisciplinary research, trains students and researchers, mobilizes new knowledge and tools, and facilitates partnerships between the academic, government, industry, NGOs and other sectors to reduce Canada’s vulnerability to marine hazards and emergencies. 

Learn more about Irving Shipbuilding Inc.

Irving Shipbuilding Inc. is part of the J.D. Irving, Limited Group of companies. ISI’s primary site is Halifax Shipyard, with four other locations in the Maritime Provinces. ISI was selected in 2011 as Canada’s Combatant Shipbuilder under the merit-based National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy and is in the early stages of a 30-year military shipbuilding program. Irving Shipbuilding’s funding is pursuant to its Value Proposition obligation under the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, whereby Irving Shipbuilding is committed to spending 0.5 per cent of contract revenues with the aim of creating a sustainable marine industry across Canada.