Arctic Science Series: Seawater Monitoring in the Arctic

This third installment in our spotlight on Arctic Science looks at the Community-based Monitoring of Seawater in Nain, Nunatsiavut on the coast of Labrador. This collaboration between the Nunatsiavut Research Center and Environment and Climate Change Canada researchers is part of the Northern Contaminants Program.

Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) researchers have been studying contaminants in the Arctic through the Northern Contaminants Program run by Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada since the early 2000s. In recent years, the Community-based Monitoring of Seawater in Nain, Nunatsiavut began as a joint project between ECCC researchers and the Nunatsiavut government.

Amber Gleason is a technician with ECCC who works closely with research scientist, Jane Kirk. They study the levels of mercury, and its toxic form called methyl mercury, in seawater. “Mercury ends up in the Arctic from long range sources,” Amber explains. “It travels in the air from industry around the world and then accumulates in the seawater and wildlife.”

The goal of their research is to develop a long-term data set that can be used to evaluate effects of climate change on levels of contaminants in seawater. “Seawater is the entry point of contaminants to the marine food web,” says Jane. “By committing to a long-term temporal data set of a full suite of contaminants including mercury, this project can be used to understand the impacts of changing ice, permafrost and snow, and other changes in the environment such as marine traffic and industrial activity.”

This work is carried out in close collaboration with the Nunatsiavut government based in Nain where the Inuit community has an additional concern about contaminant levels in the water where they hunt and fish. Liz Pijogge is a Northern Contaminants Researcher from the Nunatsiavut Research Centre who lives in Nain. Liz brings local and Indigenous Knowledge to the research project. “We pick sites for water sampling that are important to local people, food wise,” says Liz. “We look at places where people fish for char or hunt for ringed seals.”

Nain is the most northern community in Newfoundland where most of the almost 1200 residents are Inuit. The remote location is only accessible by boat and plane in the summer and by plane and snowmobile in the winter. In a typical year, Amber would travel to Nain to collect seawater samples right before the sea ice forms in August or September. “It’s a unique location for research. There is a lot of improvising due to the challenging conditions, like intense fog,” says Amber. “It’s also a very special place. The first time I went, I was struck by the sheer beauty of it. The snowcaps and Arctic poppies, it’s striking.” She and Liz would travel by boat to collect samples from several inland bays and Amber would bring the samples to ECCC’s Canada Centre Inland Waters in Burlington, Ontario for analysis in Jane’s lab.

When the global pandemic started in early 2020 and restrictions prevented Amber from travelling to Nain, they had to change their usual plans. The capacity building strategy on this project allowed Liz to continue the seawater sampling with the help of a local boat driver. “I love my job. Inuit are on the land people and I get to do that as part of my profession,” says Liz. “I get to learn new things and meet great people. I love knowing that I’m doing work to make sure that the country food is safe to eat.”

After analysis of the seawater sample in the ECCC lab, Liz has a critical role in communicating the results of the research to the community through social media and community events. “Levels of mercury and methylmercury, the toxic form of mercury that accumulates in food webs, are slightly lower than those observed at our other monitoring sites, which are located near Resolute and Cambridge Bay, Nunavut in the Arctic Archipelago,” says Jane. “However, long-term monitoring is needed to understand the reasons for regional differences we are starting to see.”

This research collaboration will continue into the future meeting the joint needs of ensuring food safety and building a long-term data set on mercury levels in seawater. “The beauty of Nain and the sense of community makes me want to preserve and protect it,” says Amber. “I can’t wait to get back there.”