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Project to take census of Arctic Ocean life: International effort (National Post - June 25, 2004)

An international team of marine biologists is launching an ambitious effort to find the biological riches in the Arctic Ocean, many of which have been hidden for millennia beneath the polar ice.

There is an urgent need for a census of life at the top of the world, say the biologists, noting that the region and its inhabitants are threatened by climate change that could lead to ice-free summers in the Arctic within 50 to 100 years.

Perhaps less than half the creatures in the Arctic Ocean are known to science, said Dr. Russ Hopcroft of the University of Alaska, one of the leaders of the census that aims to track down everything living in the dark, frigid waters.

The census is part of the decade-long, US$1-billion Census of Marine Life initiative probing the world's oceans. The Arctic component, announced yesterday, has received a $600,000 grant from the New York-based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, seed money to enable scientists to start organizing the effort. The plan is to draw on knowledge and samples that exist and may be sitting on dusty shelves. They also hope to gather reams of new information on Arctic marine life by enrolling the help of a range of observers that will include the Canadian Coast Guard and Russian operators of deep-diving submersibles.

"We hope this will be an international effort involving all the nations around the Arctic," Dr. Hopcroft said.
Several Canadian oceanographers have agreed to help, but it is likely a more formal agreement will be hammered out at a meeting this summer, said Dr. Ron O'Dor, chief scientist for the Census of Marine Life project, being directed from Washington. Dr. O'Dor is on leave from Dalhousie University in Halifax. He said the aim is to increase the number of biologists participating in scientific cruises heading to the Arctic in coming years -- expeditions that until now have been focused on the physical features of the ocean and climate.

The marine biologists are particularly keen to take a closer look at the inhabitants of the Canada Basin, a huge and mysterious region north of the Yukon and Alaska.

The basin, described as a 3,800-metre-deep abyss, is cut off from the Pacific Ocean by the Bering Strait, which is only 70 metres deep. And it is sheltered from the Atlantic by an underwater range of mountains. Permanent ice two to three metres thick covers the basin year round, although some climatologists say the region could be ice-free in summer within 50 to 100 years because of global warming.

If the ice cap does melt, the Arctic will be transformed, Dr. Hopcroft said.

"Imagine the amount of shipping traffic from the Pacific Rim to Europe," he said. He expects the impact on marine life would be dramatic.

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