Celebrating 10 years, Cambridge Bay Observatory
Paving the way for partnerships that empower coastal community leadership in ocean science.
October 2, 2022

Oct. 2, 2022 marks the 10-year anniversary of the community-led Cambridge Bay cabled ocean observatory, a pioneering partnership between Ocean Networks Canada and the people of Cambridge Bay, the impact of which extends well beyond its Arctic location.

Cambridge Bay Observatory: Celebrating 10 Years

Follow the timeline of the Cambridge Bay Observatory.

Since the observatory was first lowered eight metres down into the cold waters of Cambridge Bay, it has proven to be a trailblazer for community-led science.

“Cambridge Bay observatory has paved the way for a new kind of partnership, where ONC empowers coastal community leadership in ocean science,” says Kate Moran, ONC president and CEO. “ONC is proud to now support 10 community observatories along Canada’s Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic coastlines.”

The observatory - which consists of an onshore meteorological station and a shallow underwater cabled sensor network - enables community members to conduct year-round instrument measurement of their own local environment, collecting valuable baseline and long-series data for tracking the changing ocean and sea ice conditions.

These data, along with Inuit ocean knowledge handed down through generations, provide vital insights into the rapidly changing Arctic, which is warming at least three times faster than the average global rate. Arctic communities like Cambridge Bay, known in the Inuinnaqtun language as Iqaluktuuttiaq (ᐃᖃᓗᒃᑑᑦᑎᐊᖅ, which translates to ‘good fishing place’), are at the forefront of experiencing and adapting to these changes.

“Access to ocean observing technologies is critical to advancing Indigenous governance of traditional ocean territories, enabling Indigenous participation in the blue economy and mitigating risks for climate change and ocean hazards,” said Mia Otokiak when representing her community of Cambridge Bay and ONC at the United Nations Ocean Conference in June 2022.

Mia Otokiak speaking at the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon, Portugal about the Cambridge Bay observatory: “This partnership is a model for the extension of ocean observing and capacity building collaborations to 30+ indigenous communities in the Canadian arctic and on Canada’s Pacific and Atlantic coasts.”

Mia Otokiak was among the grade 10 class the ONC team visited in 2012. “They asked us if we wanted to come down and check it out and I’ve been involved ever since,” she says. She was ONC’s first Youth Science Ambassador and is now Technical Advisor to the Nunavut Review Board.

“There are so many researchers and scientists who come in [to remote communities], saying, I’m going to teach you,” says Otokiak, “That’s not how it should go. It should be the other way around. ONC is really good at that–understanding and working with the community. There are a lot of organizations that can learn from ONC and Cambridge Bay.”

In 2012, ONC deployed the Cambridge Bay observatory, engaging with the local community and schools.

Bruce Cambarami is another Cambridge Bay resident who works with ONC. He troubleshoots technical issues that may arise with the observatory, and he notes changes over the past 12 years, such as much milder winters and fewer blizzards.

These observations are echoed by Gerry Chidley, captain of the research vessel Martin Bergman, whose crew has helped the ONC team recover and redeploy the underwater observatory since 2013, as part of their work with the Arctic Research Foundation. He says spring and summer are now greener, with “low shrubs and grass here that you wouldn’t see back in 2013.”

Bruce Cambarami worked with the ONC team on their 2022 maintenance visit—the first full recovery of the observatory platform since 2019 due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

These climatic changes pose serious challenges to Arctic communities, which rely on solid ice for safe transportation and hunting, which are important for food and cultural resilience.

“Our Elders used to be able to tell us: On this day the ice is going to freeze. On this day, it’s not going to be safe enough to walk on,” says Otokiak, “And now they can’t do that anymore because it’s just so very unpredictable. You never know when it’s going to freeze, when it’s going to melt.”

The observatory measures sea ice thickness, and provides an accurate record of when and under what conditions the freeze-up and break-up transitions are occurring.

State of the Ocean Plot shows 10-year overview of Cambridge Bay marine environmental and ecological variations including sea-ice draft (proxy for sea-ice thickness), dissolved oxygen, seawater density, salinity and temperature. See full data preview. Learn more about these plots.

“With a longer open-water season, there is an expectation for more waves, moisture in the air, more rain, and more snow,” explains Richard Dewey, ONC associate director, science. “With a shorter ‘firm’ sea-ice season, ice fishing and hunting seasons are curtailed. More uncertainty in the dates and dynamics of both freeze-up and break-up, introduces new risks to assess when it is safe to head out on the ice.”

The observatory is also monitoring other climate change impacts like a warming Arctic ocean, declining pH resulting in ocean acidification, underwater ecological health, fish migration and marine life activity, vessel traffic, underwater soundscapes, and atmospheric conditions. These real-time benchmark data help scientists, researchers and local communities understand the changing ocean and sea-ice conditions–and are freely available online through the ONC Oceans 3.0 data portal.

Automatic Identification System data from Cambridge Bay from 2013 to 2021 show an increase in unique vessels present in the area until 2020 when traffic slowed with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Vessel types are color coded: commercial in darker purples and recreational in greens and yellows. Number of unique vessels per year and breakdown of total by vessel type (pie chart) are also displayed. 2021 contains Canadian Coast Guard data and therefore may have more spatial coverage.

The Next Ten Years

The Cambridge Bay observatory has presented a unique opportunity to test cutting-edge technology in challenging conditions. Leading oceanographer Eddy Carmack says the experience gained in overcoming these tough technical challenges will advance the future of ocean observing in the Arctic. Carmack is senior research scientist emeritus with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Officer of the Order of Canada, and the original proponent of the Cambridge Bay Observatory.

“In the coming ten years, we could implement observatories with an independent solar or wind power source on an ice barge and moor it in a remote location that’s actually right in the middle of some action taking place [providing continual monitoring in less accessible areas],” he says.

Eddy Carmack—research scientist and an original proponent of the Cambridge Bay Observatory—on one of his first Arctic field expeditions in 1969.

Carmack says the need for more Arctic research is fundamentally unchallenged.

“Much effort is being made to use large ships to map the deep arctic and its ice cover. But half of the Arctic ocean is shallow continental shelf, where Indigenous communities are located and increased industrial development and ship traffic is expected, and thus there is a pressing need for coastal observatories like that in Cambridge Bay.”

Arctic Observing is a science priority for ONC, and as we look forward to the next decade, ONC and Cambridge Bay will continue to support ocean and planet sustainability for future generations.

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