Deep ocean expert named to Order of Canada

For marine biologist Verena Tunnicliffe, being named an officer of the Order of Canada is an honour, but also a cause for reflection on ocean science, the deep sea and the future of resource extraction in oceans.

On Wednesday, Tunnicliffe, professor emeritus with the University of Victoria’s biology and earth and ocean sciences departments, was among 134 others appointed to the Order of Canada by Gov. Gen. Mary May Simon. Since 1967, the yearly list of inductees has recognized a slew of academics, social and environmental activists, and others who have made notable contributions to society.

This year, the recipients include environmentalists and conservationists such as Tunnicliffe, Barry Smit, Alexander Reford and Robert Eisenberg. Murray Sinclair, the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was also honoured.

Smit, who served on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was one of the first scientists to dig into the effects of climate change in the 1980s. A professor emeritus at the University of Guelph, much of his research has been around vulnerability and climate adaptation in communities across the world, work which he collaborated with geography graduate students, local colleagues and communities to undertake.

“Of course, many of us would like to see more action to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases … Yet, even with the slow progress, there is some cause for optimism,” he said.

“The challenges are what to do, and how to do it, and by whom? My hope is the new generation of scholar-practitioners will have sufficient knowledge of the complex interrelationships among climate and geophysical systems, societies, cultures, economies and politics to help find ways for real global progress in respecting the Earth on which we all depend.”

Tunnicliffe shares a similar sentiment — she is thrilled to be recognized but feels the award isn’t hers alone.

“It’s also a time when you reflect on all those people who have helped you along the way, a tremendous number of great students and colleagues and enablers and family,” she said.

Tunnicliffe was lauded “for her outstanding contributions to ocean sciences and for being a pioneer in the scientific exploration of the deep sea.”

She has been working to understand oceans and their creatures for decades. At first, a lot of her work was dedicated to ocean exploration through submersibles, as well as helping to develop science tools with both human-occupied vehicles and remotely operated vehicles. For 10 years, she worked to create the Victoria Experimental Network Under the Sea (VENUS) with engineers, students and other scientists to build a seafloor observatory system that would be easily accessible from any computer.

For Verena Tunnicliffe, researching the effects of deep-sea mining — which threatens habitats, ecosystem productivity and migration — is more timely than ever. #Oceans #OrderofCanada

She also worked with a team to establish the Endeavour Hot Vents Marine Protected Area on the Juan de Fuca Ridge.

Hydrothermal venting systems, which are underwater masses that discharge geothermally heated water, are full of diversity. Although Tunnicliffe has collected over 80 new species through her research and had eight named after her, one of her favourites resides in the Juan de Fuca Ridge: the sea spider or Sericosura verenae.

The sea spider, or Sericosura verenae. Image by Verena Tunnicliffe

“I happen to really like it because it’s the males that do the incubation of the eggs. The females pass all the eggs over to the males and the males walk along with all these eggs stuck on them. They’re just staggering along with these big egg piles,” she said.

“They’re kind of cute.”

For the past eight years, Tunnicliffe has pivoted to focus on international issues related to deep-sea mining. Using techniques like hydraulic pumping, minerals such as cobalt and nickel are removed from seamounts and other parts of the ocean floor.

“White smokers” formed by a hydrothermal vent in the Mariana Archipelago. Photo courtesy of NOAA via Wikimedia Commons

She’s currently part of the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative, which advises on deep-ocean resource extraction and ecosystem preservation.

“We’re scientists who are trying to get the very little information we have out there to either help delegates and governments understand that maybe they want to delay this or wait,” she said.

“Or if it gets forced through — how is it done in a way that best protects the environment?”

For Tunnicliffe, researching the effects of deep-sea mining — which threatens habitats, ecosystem productivity and migration — is more timely than ever. There are contracts on the table across the world, and studies show the process could cause the extinction of hundreds of species.

It’s why she’s so focused on the deep sea right now — a place that she once thought would be protected forever is now under imminent threat, and more data is vital in showing what effects mining could truly have.

“You have to still be driven by the passion of discovery, so that’s really what keeps me going, but also the concern about the global change in the oceans,” she said.

“And it’s so hard to see what we’re doing. It’s a little easier on land. Animals we can actually see, smell, breathe and stuff. But we can’t see it in the ocean… it’s not a different world, it’s part of our world. And it’s how we connect.”

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