Late freeze up, ice unpredictability affecting Nunavut hunters

'Even when the ice starts to form in the fall, you cannot easily predict what it will be like in the spring when people go out and travel over the ice,' said Christian Haas, Canada Research Chair in Arctic Sea Ice Geophysics at York University

Thickness of the ice changes year to year and scientists cannot predict fall freeze up or spring break up

Snowmobile tracks in Iqaluit's Frobisher Bay. Changes in climate are making travelling on Arctic sea ice less predictable. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

Hunters in Nunavut are feeling the practical implications of changing weather conditions noted by scientists in the annual Arctic Report Card​ released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

The report talked about high temperatures and low sea ice over the past year. In Iqaluit, hunter Jimmy Akavak said the freeze up was late to start this winter.

"It's been about a month to a month-and-a-half late around Frobisher Bay here and it's different each year," he said.

For Akavak the changes he's seen over the past decade has him urging caution.

"It makes hunters more wary and we have to be more careful. Where there used to be safe ice sometimes there's thinner ice in some years and that changes again every year."

About three weeks ago soft snow conditions turned around fisherman that were traveling inland to access lakes, said Akavak. They kept getting stuck and had to come back without the fish.

"It does affect hunters inland or out on the ocean, the weather."

This year's delayed freeze up isn't even the worst in Akavak's memory.

"One year about six or seven years ago, maybe less, people were boating to January," Akavak said.

"Some communities they celebrated New Years in a boat setting off flares."

Unpredictability an issue, says scientist 

It's the unpredictability of sea ice formation that keeps professor Christian Haas busy. The Canada Research Chair in Arctic Sea Ice Geophysics from York University is in the process of adding equipment to an ice breaker that measures sea ice.

"By knowing the thickness of the ice we can provide that information to communities so they can more safely travel over the ice and are more aware of the changes that happen in the environment," he said over the phone from the deck of the ship, docked in Quebec City.

"We do see overall that the ice is getting thinner and forms later in the season and breaks up earlier in the season... But first and foremost we are seeing a lot of variability from one year to the other.

"Even when the ice starts to form in the fall you cannot easily predict what it will be like in the spring when people go out and travel over the ice."

Haas and other researchers want to document the changes in ice so they can better understand what causes the fluctuations and eventually predict them.

"It does worry me," said Akavak, citing documentaries and reports on global warming that he's seen.

"Some days it's so cold we think, 'hey, maybe there is no global warming.' But it has changed over time. There is something happening out there."

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