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Worries over Russian rocket debris

A Russian rocket launch is raising red flags in Nunavut, where the debris is set to land in the Pikialasorsuaq, or North Water Polynya, in Baffin Bay between Ellesmere Island, Devon Island, and Greenland.

Pikialasorsuaq, or the North Water Polynya, is a rich ecosystem Inuit and animals depend on, including surrounding Inuit communities in Nunavut and Greenland. Debris from an Oct. 13 Russian rocket launch was expected to fall in the polynya. photo courtesy of Oceans North Canada

"We condemn Russia's actions and demand that this launch be halted," Premier Peter Taptuna stated Oct. 6. "We can’t afford to have unknown amounts of hydrazine fuel land in the largest polynya in the northern hemisphere. People living near this area would be rightfully concerned as the gap between the two islands is around 92 km at its widest point and 32 km at its narrowest."

Later, both the GN's Department of Government and Community Services and the Government of Canada stated the expectation was the launch event was "very low risk" and the debris was likely to land outside Canadian waters.

But Eva Aariak sees the event differently. The polynya, which is an area of open water surrounded by sea ice, called Pikialasorsuaq (great upwelling) by Inuit, is one Aariak is very familiar with.

"This is not the first time. This is a repeated action by the Russians. Some people are saying it's a minimal risk. But at the same time, they use the word risk. As long as the word risk is there, nobody knows exactly to what level the risk is – and I think people have the right to know exactly what that risk is," she said.

"Nobody seems to pinpoint the exact amount of risk."

The notion that the debris won't land in Canadian waters is irrelevant, and Aariak, born and raised in Arctic Bay, would know. She is one of three Inuit who make up the Pikialasorsuaq Commission set up by the Inuit Circumpolar Council. The goal is Inuit-led management of the polynya. The commissioners carried out consultations in 2016 in Grise Fiord, Resolute, Arctic Bay, Pond Inlet and Clyde River on the Canadian side, and Siorapaluk, Qaanaaq, Savissivik, Kullorsuaq, Nuussuaq and Upernavik on the Greenlandic side.

"This polynya is one of the richest birthing places, an ecologically rich area of open water. The animal do not identify, 'Oh, today I'm going to go on the Greenland side or the Canadian side.' It's their habitat. That's where they give birth to their young. It's not just the sea mammals, either, that use that area," she said.

"It's the polar bears. It's the migration path for birds. And it's a source of food for the Northern people."

Premier demands swift action to dissuade Russia

In his statement, Taptuna said Canada has a duty to protect its citizens and marine environment from foreign actions that have the potential to cause ecological contamination and health impacts, adding he had "reached out" to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

"Our people rely on the marine ecosystem to support our families, communities and livelihoods," he said.

On Oct. 10, Taptuna's chief of public affairs Yasmina Pepa said Taptuna had not spoken directly to Trudeau, but had spoken with officials with the Prime Minister's Office and Global Affairs Canada.

On Oct. 11, spokesperson for Global Affairs Brittany Venhola-Fletcher told Nunavut News that Trudeau had been in contact with Taptuna's office.

Venhola-Fletcher said Canada only received notice about the planned Oct. 13 launch from Russia on Oct. 5, adding Canada "has reinforced the need for early notification of space launches to ensure that all precautions relating both to the safety and security of airspace and any potential environmental concerns can be appropriately addressed directly with international partners whose space launches result in debris on our territory, including in Canadian internal waters and territorial sea, or within Canada’s exclusive economic zone."

Venhola-Fletcher said most space debris disintegrates and burns up entirely as it enters the Earth's atmosphere and risks are considered very low that debris or unspent fuel will reach the marine environment.

"The GN is monitoring this situation and will provide more information if necessary. Although very unlikely, if wreckage falls on land, there will be a coordinated effort to notify the public and recover the debris," stated Community and Government Services communications officer Kris Mullaly.

Taptuna called on Canada and Denmark "to take swift action at the international level to dissuade these activities and move forward with protecting this area locally and internationally through the Arctic Council, of which Russia is a member."