Patrolling the northern wilderness isn’t as easy as it used to be.
Climate change is the culprit.
Open water, the lack of snow and resulting rocky ground and other changes in the northern environment are impeding military patrols and making such exercises more expensive and dangerous.
Missions are taking longer and costing more due to earlier and longer summers, Canadian Forces officers told the Advantage North transportation strategies conference on Tuesday.
“In 2004, the coast guard extended their operation season by three weeks to accommodate commercial shipping in support of community re-supply,” said Lieutenant Commander Ivan Russell of the Canadian Forces Joint Task Force North.
The coast guard’s season has remained extended since then, and will only grow with the longer summers and increased Arctic shipping expected in the future.
Climate change has happened and nothing we do now will affect the projected rise in temperatures over the next 20 years, said climate change modeler John Fyfe.
Though our actions to reduce greenhouse gases will be important in 100 years, we already have to think about the “bad word” being whispered among climate change scientists: adaptation.
Expect no summer sea ice within 40 years, said Fyfe.
Changes in Grise Fjord and Resolute Bay are shocking, said Maj. Chris Bergeron, Commanding Officer of the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol.
During the 2007 Nunalivut (“land that is ours”) exercise to assert sovereignty, Bergeron’s rangers ran into patches of unusually rough ice and even water where in past years they found smooth snowmobiling.
“In Resolute Bay, it’s supposed to be ice,” said Bergeron.
“We had to go inland because the ice wasn’t there, it was open water.”
The 24 rangers split up and took three different routes across Ellesmere Island en route to Alert, the world’s most northerly inhabited settlement.
One of the patrols followed a route up the Grise Fjord, where Bergeron encountered sea ice nearly two metres thick last year.
“This year it was open water. I was very surprised at that,” he said.
One of the three patrols took an inland route over riverbeds, expecting fewer problems away from the sea.
That wasn’t the case.
“No snow” for three or four kilometres, Bergeron said.
“We had to airlift them by plane because they broke all their snowmachines.”
He and his rangers spend 220 days out of the year on the land and, as such, they have increased contact with elders and hunters.
This year he heard disturbing accounts out of Igloolik.
Winter came five weeks late in October.
Hunters are falling through thin ice and drowning more often.
There’s fog where there never used to be.
Also, the polar bears are angrier and more aggressive this year.
Over the past year, Bergeron’s team had to kill three problem bears — all very skinny.
“In one case we fired eight shots, even one in front of the bear, to push him away.
“He kept coming back,” Bergeron said, adding, “we don’t usually see skinny bears.”
Reminding the audience he’s not a scientist, Bergeron suggested the evidence points to severe changes underway.
The terrain, waterways and even the weather is not what it once was — there are more whiteout conditions these days — so the sovereignty missions have become more dangerous and unpredictable, he said.
“The biggest impact for me is that we’re going to have to be more flexible with our timeframe.”