Community-based Observing of coastal Nunatsiavut Ocean Circulation (CONOC)


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Ocean circulation is critical in setting the distribution of ocean temperatures, sea ice, biological productivity and species distributions. Ocean circulation is poorly observed in coastal Nunatsiavut, a region undergoing significant ocean climate change in recent decades. This project aims to improve our knowledge of coastal ocean currents using ocean drifters. These drifters move with the near-surface ocean circulation and relay their position via satellite. Drifters will be built and deployed by community youth, as part of annual summer schools (over three years) which will involve a science learning component, thereby educating and empowering local communities through direct involvement in collecting and using ocean observations. In addition, workshops will be held alongside the summer schools to record and transfer traditional knowledge of coastal ocean currents from community elders. The data arising from this project will be useful to community and government planning for climate change and in the development of ocean models for the region which will provide our best estimates of future change in the region


KEY CLIMATE INDICATORS: Ocean currents and trajectories, seawater temperature.




Eric Oliver


Indigenous individual: Inuit, Nunatsiavut


Department of Oceanography, Dalhousie University


Life Sciences Centre Room 5617, 1355 Oxford Street, PO BOX 15000
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, B3H 4R2


Work: (902) 494-2505

Cell: (902) 802-2613

E-mail address



Community name

Community type

Nunatsiavut Government

Indigenous organization




Position & Organization


Eric Oliver

Assistant Professor, Department of Oceanography, Dalhousie University

Project lead. Procure and deploy equipment. Lead summer schools and workshops.

External Partners

Claudio Aporta

Associate Professor, Marine Affairs Program, Dalhousie University, Life Sciences Centre, Room 804, 1459 Oxford Street, Halifax NS B3H 4R2, Work: (902) 494-7132, E-mail:

Advise on arctic anthropology and supervise Masters of Marine Management student to participate in traditional knowledge workshops.

Clark Richards

Research Scientist, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Bedford Institute of Oceanography, PO Box 1006, Dartmouth NS, B2Y 4A2, Work: (902) 403-1682, E-mail:

Advise on observational oceanography, instrumentation and supplemental data.

Laura Avery

Marine Environmental Observation, Prediction and Response (MEOPAR) NCE. Contact: Laura Avery, Training Program Coordinator, Steele Ocean Sciences Building, 1355 Oxford Street, Suite 2-41, Halifax NS, B3H 4J1, Work: (902) 494-4385, E-mail:

Support for training programs through graduate student assistants and summer school / workshop costs.




The aim of this project is three-fold: First, to increase the level of ocean monitoring along coastal Nunatsiavut in a way that will help ongoing efforts to understand long-term ocean climate change in the region. Second, to provide a means of youth education in oceanography and involvement in ocean observation. And three, to facilitate the transfer of traditional knowledge across generations in a way that (i) engages youth excitement in the process and (ii) records this information for comparison with scientific observations and models.




Background and Motivation. Ocean currents, also known as ocean circulation, are major features of the climate system. Ocean circulation is responsible, in part, for the distribution of physical variables including ocean temperature, salinity and sea ice, as well as biogeochemistry, primary productivity, and fisheries. Inuit communities in Nunatsiavut depend on predictable sea ice conditions for winter travel and to successfully harvest sea mammals and gather fish for sustenance and livelihood. Therefore, understanding the ocean circulation in coastal Nunatsiavut, and how it may be changing, is critical for projecting changes in winter travel routes and harvesting and fishing practices.

Ocean circulation in coastal Nunatsiavut is poorly observed and existing observations do not span a long time period making estimations of ocean climate change difficult (Colbourne et al. 2015). However, coastal circulation and its change over time can be estimated from ocean models, which are under development for this region as part of the Ocean Frontier Institute (Module E “Ecosystem Indicators” and Module F “Cooperative Model Framework for the NW Atlantic and Canadian Arctic Gateway”). These models require observations to constrain their estimates of circulation.

The measurement campaign proposed here will provide novel observations of ocean currents. These observations can then be used in the development of ocean circulation models for coastal Nunatsiavut. Such models, validated using these observations, can then be used to provide estimates of ocean climate change (circulation, ocean temperature, sea ice, biological productivity) in coastal Nunatsiavut. Furthermore, the planned observations will largely be performed by community youth who will help build the instruments, learn the background oceanography, and help deploy them. Finally, in parallel with the scientific measurement campaign will be an indigenous knowledge transfer component. In this component, partnerships between elders and youth will record existing knowledge of ocean circulation and past changes, thereby enabling inter-generational knowledge transfer.

Methodology. Ocean circulation will be measured using ocean drifters. Drifters are devices which float at or near the ocean surface, move passively with the ocean currents, and relay their positional information via satellite. Most drifters move with the upper metre of the ocean currents but there also exist drifters with “drogues” that allow the drifter to move with deeper flows. The most commonly used drifter today is the Coastal Ocean Dynamics Experiment (CODE) type developed by Russ Davis (Scripps Institute of Oceanography) in the 1980s (Davis 1985), using a simple cross-shaped subsurface sail (Fig. 1a). Some drifters also measure seawater temperature as they move.


The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center has developed the Student Drifters programme:, The Student Drifters programme enables student-built and community-deployed drifters to be used to monitor ocean currents in coastal and offshore regions. Their designs include low-cost alternatives to standard surface (CODE) and “drogued” drifters (SVP). Drifters are commercially available from a number of manufacturers at up to twice the cost of those developed by the Student Drifters programme. An additional advantage of the Student Drifters is the hands-on construction component with involvement of youth in the construction, testing, and deployment of the drifters (Fig. 1b).

The instruments developed by Student Drifters follow oceanographic standards enabling them to move with the ocean currents and report their position regularly. The position of these drifters are tracked by satellite and provide regular (daily or sub-daily) updates which can be monitored in real-time. The data provided by many drifters over time can be used to build up an understanding of coastal ocean currents: where the currents are, which direction and how strongly they flow, and if there is any seasonality in their strength. These instruments are designed for multi-week journeys in the offshore coastal currents (>10-20km from shore) and to be expendable. The expendable nature of the drifters has led to the minimisation of plastic used in their design, so as to minimise ecological impacts. Student-built drifter data has been used, among other studies, to map out transports of coastal currents in the Gulf of Maine (Manning et al. 2009) and to validate ocean model estimates of circulation in the Bay of Fundy (Aretxabaleta et al. 2009).


In this project we will build a set of these drifters and deploy them along coastal Nunatsiavut over a period of three years. The drifters will be built by high school students, as part of summer schools to be held in Nunatsiavut communuties. These summer schools will include an oceanographic and climate education component (see below) prior to the hands-on drifter building and testing. The drifters will then be deployed using two methods: (1) from fishing vessels, some distance away from the coast, and (2) from the coastal ferry (Northern Ranger) that travels between communities. The students will be able to name their own drifters and follow their tracks in real-time via the online website provided by the Student Drifters programme (Fig. 1c). The student-built drifters will be supplemented with an equal number of commercial drifters of the same type which have the advantage of measuring seawater temperature as well; and through the summer schools we will also explore the possibility of improving the student-built drifters to measure temperature.


Sampling Areas. Sampling will occur along coastal and nearshore Nunatsiavut (Fig. 2). Each year, we will deploy 10 student-built drifters and 10 commercial drifters (the first year will have an extra drifter of each type for initial testing). The 10 student-built drifters will consist of 5 surface-flowing drifters and 5 drogued drifters. The drogued drifters will be configured to follow the ocean currents at 15 m depth. Deployment locations (blue dots in Fig. 2) will be offshore of Groswater bay, to the east of Rigolet, and at each location we will deploy one surface and one drogued drifter. The 10 commercial drifters will also consist of 5 surface and 5 drogued (15 m) instruments. These will be deployed from the Northern Ranger ferry at locations furthest from land (red dots in Fig. 2), which will correspond approximately to the mid-points between stops at each community (Rigolet, Makkovik, Postville, Hopedale, Natuashish, Nain). The combined distribution of student-built and commercial drifter deployment locations will provide samples over the entire Nunatsiavut coastal circulation system, with highest density near Rigolet.


Measurement Parameters. Both the student-built and commercial drifters will report their position via satellite each hour. Hourly samples will allow us to resolve the tidal cycle, which is of interest itself and important to resolve in order to provide useful data to ocean models. It is expected that each drifter will have a three month lifetime before running out of battery power. Drifter positions can then be used to infer coastal ocean currents. The commercial drifters will further measure seawater temperature near the ocean surface, at the same sample rate (hourly) as their position.


Participating Communities. The summer schools will be held in Rigolet, Nunatsiavut each year over three years. Rigolet was chosen due to Prof Oliver’s strong family ties to the community. The student-built drifters will be built and tested during the summer schools and deployed offshore east of the community. The first inter-generational knowledge transfer workshop will occur in Rigolet in close association with the first summer school. Future workshops (in years 2 and 3) will occur in other communities in Nunatsiavut. It is expected that the project will work together with the Nunatsiavut Climate Change Liaison Officer and, within each community, the Nunatsiavut Community Coordinators.

Each year after the drifter tracks are complete (i.e. after at least three months since deployment) a follow-up workshop will be held in Nunatsiavut. These workshops will have two goals: (1) discuss the scientific measurements that were made from the deployments to date (the youth who built and deployed the drifters will be involved in these discussions), and (2) discuss the data and the overall programme with Nunatsiavut Government and community staff in order to plan the best way in which it, and other ongoing research efforts at Dalhousie by Professor Eric Oliver, can be designed to maximise benefit to coastal communities in terms of climate change knowledge and adaptation. These workshops will be attended by Eric Oliver’s graduate and undergraduate students who will be working with the drifter data and the ocean models developed in Oliver’s lab.

Partners. Partners include Dalhousie University, Fisheries and Ocean Canada (DFO) and the Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response (MEOPAR) network. Eric Oliver is applying, in the role of project lead, as an indigenous individual (Inuk from Nunatsiavut). He is also Assistant Professor in the Department Oceanography at Dalhousie University and in that role Dalhousie will act as a partner in this project. Dalhouse will provide access to computational resources, graduate student assistants, scientific publications, etc to help deliver the summer school, workshop and research components of the project. The project will fund his travel to and accomodation while in Nunatsiavut (2 trips per year). Claudio Aporta will also be a partner from Dalhousie university and will advise on the traditional knowledge transfer workshops and supervise a graduate student at Dalhousie University to help coordinate that activity.


DFO will help support the observational oceanography component of this project through the expertise of Dr Clark Richards, technical development of drifter sensors, and the use of instruments. MEOPAR (based in Halifax, NS) will help support summer school and workshop costs and will fund graduate student assistants. Non-contributing partnerships include: (1) the Ocean Frontier Institute (OFI) in which Eric Oliver is an investigator developing ocean models for coastal Nunatsiavut (OFI Modules E & F) and (2) the year of the Labrador Sea 2020 (, led by Brad deYoung (Memorial University of Newfoundland) and Doug Wallace (Dalhousie) which aims to coordinate the efforts of all research occurring in or around the margins of the Labrador Sea.


References. Aretxabaleta, A. L. Et al. (2009). Model simulations of the Bay of Fundy Gyre: 2. Hindcasts for 2005–2007 reveal interannual variability in retentiveness. Journal of Geophysical Research, 114(C9); Colbourne et al. (2015). Physical oceanographic properties on the Newfoundland and Labrador Shelf during 2014. DFO Can Sci Advis Sec Res Doc 2015/053, 37 pp.; Davis, R. E. (1985). Drifter observations of coastal surface currents during CODE: The statistical and dynamical views. Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, 90(C3), 4756-4772; Manning, J. P. Et al. (2009). Drifter observations of the Gulf of Maine coastal current. Continental Shelf Research, 29(7), 835-845.




Indigenous youth engagement in this project will have three parts:


1. Annual summer schools will be held with a science learning component and a drifter building and testing component. Participating students will be of high school age (14-18). The learning component will last 1-2 days and consist of a mix of lectures, demonstrations, and hands-on activities. This component will teach basic oceanography concepts so that the students have enough background to understand what the drifters are for, what they will measure, and how we might expect them to behave. The drifter building and testing component will last one day. Drifters will be built in a half-day with the students assigned in groups to each drifter. These students can name their drifter and paint it or add designs (see Fig. 1B for an example), so that they are invested in following up on its position after deployment. The remainder of the day will be dedicated to testing the drifters’ flotation (in the local harbour) and positional tracking system. A dedicated laptop will be purchased for this purpose. At this stage the students will be able to learn how the drifter tracking website works so that they can follow up on their drifters’ positions. This activity will occur once per year, over three years. These youth will also be encouraged to attend the follow-up meetings once per year where we will discuss the data collected to date.

2. Commercial drifters will be deployed from the Northern Ranger ferry along the Nunatsiavut coast. This deployment will employ 2 community youth as assistants. These youth will be post-high school age (18-29) and will be remunerated for their time (including ferry costs). The youth assistants will accompany Eric Oliver on the ferry voyage north from Rigolet and participate in the deployment of the commercial drifters. They will also be encouraged to attend the summer school lectures/demonstrations to familiarize themselves with the background oceanography and the drifters themselves.

3. An intergenerational transfer of indigenous knowledge component will engage youth directly (for details see below).




Workshops will be held in order to enable intergenerational transfer of knowledge of coastal ocean currents. Starting in Rigolet in the first year, elders will be asked to participate in these workshops where they will describe their knowledge of coastal ocean currents. Details including direction, strength, and any seasonal changes as well as changes over time (indicative of climate change and variability) will be recorded and marked on an oversize map of the region of interest. Each elder will be paired with a youth from the same community who will be involved in recording this knowledge, and in doing so engage in the transfer of knowledge across generations. The youths will then as a team collate the information and, in collaboration with an anthropologist, produce a report. This report will include maps and descriptions of the ocean currents as described by the elders. Further workshops after the first year will perform the same activity in other Nunatsiavut communities (Makkovik, Postville, Hopedale, Nain).




Data collection from the drifters will be done remotely. Drifter locations are determined via satellite and relayed (along with seawater temperature if measured) to the Northeast Fisheries Science Centre (Woods Hole, Massachusetts, USA) where it is stored and made freely available in near-real time (1-hour delay; The data will also be duplicated on Professor Oliver’s compute servers at Dalhousie University. The recorded traditional knowledge will be synthesized and published as a report. This project will ensure that all data, including both scientific measurements and traditional knowledge, will be made freely and publicly available.