Peninsula scientist lauded for Arctic research

Peninsula scientist lauded for Arctic research

Scientist Eddy Carmack, an oceanographer and Central Saanich resident, is in Norway to collect the first-ever Mohn Prize for Arctic research.

Carmack was awarded the prize for a lifetime of achievement, and it is shared between himself and The Meaning of Ice, a group of Indigenous experts and scientists from Alaska, Canada and Greenland. It was to be presented to them on January 22 and they were to give lectures the following day at UiT, The Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø. The prize is worth 2 million Norwegian krone (about $317,500 CAD).

Carmack first visited the Arctic in 1969 as a graduate student, in a tent “drifting between Ellsmere Island and Greenland.”

“Being a youngster on a chunk of ice in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when I returned, one thought of the Arctic Ocean as unchanging, remote and pristine,” said Carmack. “Really almost a separate planet from Earth itself. It’s not that way now.”

Instead, he said, the Arctic is the most rapidly changing part of the planet.

“The loss of sea ice is probably the most evident signal of global warming. We’re seeing the ice get softer, thinner and retreat. It’s slowly opening a box of unknowns.”

Carmack’s lecture will be about his support for a “pan-Arctic” perspective, which includes Arctic ecosystems and transcends national boundaries.

“The tendency has been for individual nations to focus on their individual waters,” said Carmack. “And to really understand how the Arctic is responding to climate change and how its ecosystem works and what we can do to manage it in the future, you need that big picture view.”

He said the scientific community knew climate change was a real concern by the mid-to-late 1980s.

“Now that the ice is retreating, the atmosphere is able to reach the ocean, whereas before it sort of had a lid on it, so to speak. I hate the word unprecedented, but that’s what it is,” said Carmack.

He described the Arctic Ocean as a layer cake, with the top 50 to 100 metres being cold and fresh, which keeps the ice insulated from warmer, saltier water beneath that come from southern oceans like the Atlantic.

More warm water from the Greenland sea is moving north into the Arctic, which he said would change ice cover and access for people.

Carmack worked for Environment Canada during the 1970s and ‘80s studying Canadian lakes and rivers, switching to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in the mid-1980s to research Arctic ice and oceans.

His education was in physical oceanography, meaning oceans and tides, “but it’s always been more exciting to see that work applied to other disciplines.”

He has also been pushing for more citizen scientists to work on small boats, eventually hoping for a “necklace” of scientists around the country.

When Carmack was asked how he felt about the achievement, he said “it obviously feels wonderful.”

“What would an athlete feel like winning the Super Bowl?”

Coincidentally, Eddy and his wife Carole are celebrating their 48th wedding anniversary on the last day of the conference.

“It’s an award for a lifetime of working with incredible and really nice people. That’s what’s kept me in this work for 50 years. It’s not an award for me per se, it’s an award that reflects my wife, my family, my colleagues over 50 years, the inspirational people and all that,” he said.