Earlier this month, with abnormally icy conditions in the Eastern Hudson Bay, the research icebreaker CCGS Amundsen was diverted from its scientific mission to help escort ships providing fuel to remote Inuit communities in Northern Quebec. Highly idiotic reports crowed about how this debunks global warming, apparently unaware of what cherry picking means. (A check of the satellite data showed that the ice cover is over 500,000 sq. km lower than the recent thirty year average, but higher than normal in Eastern Hudson Bay.)
The leading scientists of the expedition wrote an op-ed in the Globe and Mail about the unfortunate impact on science that this event has caused. Scientists were preparing experiments for the trip for months, in some cases years. Experiments that have now been cancelled at great financial cost, among other things. But it’s also clear that we’re not going to abandon a village to survive or perish on its own without fuel. So, the solution seems to be that more ice-breakers are needed. This is the case that Dr. Philippe Tortell, Dr. Roger François and Dr. Jay Cullen make in the op-ed.
I am not well-informed on this subject, like the leaders of the expedition. But I think insufficient icebreakers isn’t the whole story. A highly informative report from David Murphy at Nunatsiaq News makes clear that there are other icebreakers that normally work in the area, but they were called off. For instance, the CCGS Terry Fox:
NEAS’s chief executive officer Suzanne Paquin said she’s pleased the Amundsen is now helping her supply vessels but she’s upset that the CCGS Terry Fox was suddenly yanked out of Hudson Bay.
“Honestly, the Terry Fox was pulled on Sunday night in what I call a very… in a manner in which I feel was unacceptable,” Paquin said.
“[The CCGS Terry Fox is] going on a federal mission to the North Pole. So she had to leave in order to do that mission,” she said.
The Terry Fox is the ship that usually provides sealift in the Eastern Hudson Bay, but it was called off to prepare for a UNCLOS conference, and then to map the seafloor for future oil exploration. The thing is, the information that there is more ice in the Eastern Hudson Bay than normal was clearly available: those satellite pictures I mentioned earlier are available to the Coast Guard to make that decision. Did the Coast Guard just not know that there was more ice in Eastern Hudson Bay than normal? I find that hard to believe. Here is another quote from the Nunatsiaq News article that I think provides a clue:
NSSI general manager Waguih Rayes also questioned the decision to pull the Terry Fox out of commission.
“I understand the priorities were set at the very high level at the federal government,” Rayes said.
I know that blaming everything on the federal government leads to politicization, and politicization is the mind-killer. Or, as I talked about it earlier on the blog, the “culture war-ification of everything”. It would be a shame for scientific research to become a culture war issue filled with kneejerk reactions from the right and left. Governments of all kinds routinely make bad decisions since they can’t be knowledgeable about the intricacies of absolutely everything. Having said that, how can I avoid the conclusion that the federal government either didn’t bother looking at the necessary information before calling off the Terry Fox, or did look at it, decided that the Amundsen’s research program would probably have to be sacrificed – and didn’t bother to tell the scientists about it. For some reason, the justification for the other ice breakers not being there – “they were scheduled, so they went” – applied to the Louis St. Laurent and the Terry Fox, but not to the Amundsen, which also had a scheduled mission.
As I said, I am certainly not an expert on shipping logistics, in fact, I am as far from an expert on shipping logistics as one could possibly be. There could very well be a good reason why the Amundsen is there, rather than the Pierre Radisson or the Terry Fox. And even if you buy my argument, one icebreaker doesn’t prove any larger trend. But for everyone I know who is involved in some work that has to do with science or the expansion of knowledge more broadly, there are stories that mirror this one. My friends who are doing basic research are upset that the government has eliminated some science funding for basic research or redirected to be used exclusively on partnerships with industry. My friends who are librarians are upset that librarians are no longer free to speak in public and must evince loyalty to the government of Canada. I know that people working in atmospheric sciences are upset at cuts to monitoring programs. People working in environmental sciences are upset at the federal government routinely overriding or ignoring environmental review processes. The federal government seems to have an attitude that they already know everything. I think that attitude is very wrong. The best argument for small-c conservatism I can think of is that we don’t know everything, so radical actions will have unintended consequences. So it’s not only wrong, it’s fundamentally un-conservative.