A snowmobiler enters a checkpoint during Cain’s Quest in Labrador earlier this month. Facebook

hen a sporting event gets mentioned in the Environment Canada forecast, you can bet it’s no ordinary day.

Cain’s Quest, the grueling 3,000-mile snowmobile trek across the Labrador wild, came to a soggy end Tuesday, March 7, when organizers realized mild temperatures and rain were making the race too treacherous for the 30 teams from around the world to complete.

It’s only the second time it’s been shut down since its inception in 2006.

One team from Finland broke through sea ice, forcing one of them to swim to safety as help arrived.

“I haven’t ever before swam in the Atlantic Ocean, but hey, now it’s done,” Esa Norokorpi said, according to their Facebook page.

Another pair of teams reportedly had to camp overnight in the Mealy Mountains before help arrived.

Cain’s Quest chairman Chris Lacey said Tuesday evening the decision to cancel came around 11 a.m. that day when the forecast showed no signs of cooling down.

“It ain’t improving. It’s supposed to stay mild for the next two to three days,” Lacey said.

The 11th annual race had already been delayed twice.

Right decision

Lacey said that so far, participants and fans have been understanding.

“The response has been very good and overwhelmingly positive. People really respect what we did, why we did it and how we did it.”

That includes Labrador Affairs Minister Lisa Dempster, who issued a statement praising the wisdom of putting safety first.

“The decision announced by the Cain’s Quest board of directors and organizing committee today to cancel the race was undoubtedly a difficult one to make,” she said. 

“In the interest of safety of the competitors, their support crews, race officials, checkpoint personnel and other volunteers, as well as a thorough review of the weather conditions today and into the coming days, this was certainly the best and most responsible decision for all concerned.”

Lacey said organizers only map checkpoints, but always make sure there are alternative routes to sea ice.

“When we have our race route designed, we don’t use sea ice as a route — on the south coast, especially,” he said.

“We tell them where to go. They choose how to get there.”

Changing climate

Northern climate change expert Robert Way agreed the cancellation was an obvious call.

“I think nobody would say that it wasn’t the right call to cancel at this point, especially as they are south right now,” he said from Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

But the unusually mild March weather doesn’t tell the whole story.

In fact, he said, late winter and spring have yet to show any consistent trends in any direction.

Rather, it’s the fall weather that’s affected ice conditions the most.

“We have seen a pretty strong trend throughout the fall and into early winter, and all that time period is so important for forming a nice, stable ice cover,” said Way, a professor with Queen’s College in Kingston.

“Over time, what we’ve seen is that the fall has shifted from being more wintery to more mixed precipitation in a lot of Labrador, and that’s had an impact.”

It’s a phenomenon northern Indigenous people have experienced up close, as traditional hunting grounds have been affected by dwindling ice and thawing permafrost.

Gradual ocean warming is also a factor.

“The ocean temperatures off the coast have been warming, and that eats away beneath the sea ice in some cases,” Way said.

“Right now, it’s easy to see because you look outside your window and you see pools of water and warm temperatures, and it’s easy to make that link, whereas sometimes it can look perfect on the surface but at the same time, warmer temperatures beneath can be making ice conditions less safe.”

Northern anomaly

Way says climate change is more amplified the closer one gets to the poles. 

One of the main reasons is a factor called albedo, which refers to the reflectivity of the Earth.

As sea ice disappears, more of the sun’s rays are absorbed into the dark ocean rather than reflected back into space.

“All of that sunlight is hitting dark ocean water and warming up the water, but also you’ve got a lot of connection between the air and the water going on where they used to be separated.”

While the average temperature may increase, Way said the biggest problem is adapting to more volatility and unpredictability.

“It’s going to be a rough ride in terms of variability,” he said.

As for Cain’s Quest, Lacey said there’s little organizers can do to prepare in future.

Some years, they’ve had to deal with excessive cold, as well.

“It’ll be on our minds when we plan for the future, but things like this have happened in the past,” he said.

By Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 09, 2023

This item reprinted with permission from   The Telegram   St. John's, Newfoundland
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