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Warming to the arctic

Canadians have woken up to the vast potential of the Arctic, but researchers wonder what it will take to push attitudes to our northern latitudes beyond platitudes.


Scientist John Smol says, “Depending on how you define Canada, approximately half the land mass and two-thirds of the coastline are in the Arctic. We’re an Arctic nation.” Despite this reality, the peaks and troughs that characterize the last 30 years of Canadian northern research suggest that Canada has not yet come to terms with its Arctic identity.

Innovative projects and policy like the Arctic Land Use Research Program in the late 1970s and Brian Mulroney’s $3-billion Green Plan a decade later, which included funding for environmental research, stand in sharp contrast to the chronic underfunding of the 1990s and the subsequent loss of a whole generation of Canadian Arctic scientists. By the turn of the new millennium, northern research in Canada had reached a nadir. “We were almost closing shop,” says Dr. Smol, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change at Queen’s University.  “It was embarrassing.”

The 2000 report, From Crisis to Opportunity: Rebuilding Canada’s Role in Northern Research, published by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, represented a much-needed wake-up call.

“The report was timely and it did a good job,” says Tom Hutchinson, who chaired the group that produced the report and is professor emeritus of environmental and resource studies at Trent University. “Things have transformed over the last eight or nine years in a way I couldn’t have even predicted.”

Louis Fortier, a Université Laval researcher and scientific director of ArcticNet, says climate change was the main impetus for boosting Arctic research in the years immediately following the release of the report. “The Arctic was warming much faster than elsewhere – and it was in our backyard,” he observes.

Those changes in turn precipitated research into issues of northern sovereignty and security, and highlighted the possibility of extensive resource development. The creation of Nunavut in 1999 also helped to give people in the North a stronger political voice and a means by which to express concerns about their changing environment.

That the Arctic is now on the public and political radar is unquestionable. For evidence, look no farther than Canada’s Northern Strategy, released by the federal government in 2009. The document’s subtitle reads: “Our North, our heritage, our future.” The strategy identifies four priorities for the region: Arctic sovereignty, protecting the environment, promoting development and improving governance.

Looking back, Dr. Hutchinson says the establishment of six Northern Research Chairs in 2002 – each with funding of $1.2-million from NSERC – was “an absolute pivotal moment in northern research.” Then came the highly successful 2007-08 International Polar Year, in which Canada invested more than $150 million in projects and programs.

ice breaker

International Polar Year was bookended by a series of successes, such as the inauguration in 2003 of the research icebreaker CCGS Amundsen and the establishment of ArcticNet that same year as one of Canada’s Networks of Centres of Excellence. ArcticNet includes more than 100 researchers from 27 Canadian universities and federal and provincial agencies.

Most recently, the federal government committed $85 million to the Arctic Infrastructure Fund to refurbish 20 Arctic field stations, and a $2-million feasibility study is under way to establish the functions and final location for a world-class High Arctic research station.

However, these successes paint only a partial picture. On the other side of the ledger, many projects are winding down in the absence of renewed funding, and there is concern among some researchers about Canada’s ability to maintain the momentum generated by the International Polar Year.

The Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, the main funding source for climate and atmospheric sciences across Canada, is one such casualty. Although the foundation’s mandate has been extended to March 2012, the coffers are essentially empty. “We’ve been requesting further funding for years,” says Kelly Crowe, communications officer at CFCAS, “but [we] haven’t heard back one way or the other.”

Andrew Weaver, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Climate Modelling and Analysis at the University of Victoria, is even more critical in his assessment of the situation, citing the Eureka Weather Station on Ellesmere Island and the Polar Climate Stability Network as two examples of vital projects that are being threatened with closure. “We are in a very woeful situation in Canada and any potential statement of optimism is misleading,” he says.

One of the biggest hurdles for Arctic researchers is the sheer cost of carrying out research in the North. “Scientists in the Arctic need to spend about 50 percent of their budget just to get to there. It costs $5,000 to go from anywhere down south to the High Arctic,” comments Martin Bergmann, director of the Polar Continental Shelf Program, part of Natural Resources Canada.

However, despite the massive logistical costs that are part and parcel of Arctic research, the polar shelf program has only a small annual budget of around $6 million, two-thirds of which is available for logistical support. “More resources are needed than are available today to do the science that we want to do, and that we feel is necessary,” Mr. Bergmann concedes.

While funding for many Arctic research projects is coming to an end, other programs designed to facilitate research in the North have not evolved as expected. Isabelle Blain, vice-president for research grants and scholarships at NSERC, says the funding agency has never distributed the full complement of awards available under the Northern Internships program.

Ms. Blain believes the requirement that a partner in the North be identified for all funded projects, plus the fact that there are other postdoctoral fellowship and scholarship options available to applicants, meant that take up of Northern Internships was not as high as hoped. She says this is “an indication that we could use the funds more effectively doing something else rather than the internships at this point.”

Some are also raising questions about the lack of operating funds to support new infrastructure, including the 20 field stations being renovated through the Arctic Infrastructure Fund.  As UVic’s Dr. Weaver reflects, “It’s meaningless to provide money for infrastructure if you do not provide support for people to use the infrastructure.”

In response to this concern, a consortium of university and federal researchers associated with ArcticNet recently met to discuss how the academic community can best prepare for the new Arctic infrastructure. Laval’s Dr. Fortier explains: “We want to double or even triple the numbers of young scientists in Canadian universities that are active in Arctic and polar research so that when they open the new infrastructure in the north, [the facilities] are immediately operational.”

ArcticNet will hear this summer if its own funding will be renewed for another seven years, while a number of other proposals and projects that could give renewed vigour to Canadian Arctic research also await decisions. David Barber, who holds the Canada Research Chair for Arctic System Science at the University of Manitoba, notes that there are four Arctic proposals in the running for the new Canada Excellence Research Chairs program, which will award each chair holder up to $10 million over seven years. Even if just one of those proposals is successful, says Dr. Barber, “that’s a major improvement in funding for the Arctic.”

The outcome and timing of other Arctic projects is more uncertain. For example, while the feasibility study for the High Arctic research station is ongoing, further funds have yet to be committed to the project. Meanwhile, the $720-million flagship icebreaker CCGS John G. Diefenbaker isn’t expected to join the Canadian Coast Guard fleet until around 2017.

John England, who holds the NSERC Northern Research Chair at the University of Alberta, argues in a recent article in Nature that the underlying problem is the lack of a national, integrated polar policy that would commit Canada to clear objectives and better coordinate research activities. He says the 2009 Northern Strategy was a good start but, he argues, it fails to commit federal departments to its objectives and cannot safeguard funding.

“Numerous other northern nations, including Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, have integrated government support for polar research that leaves Canada trailing,” he writes. “Only a national polar policy can provide the commitment, integration and continuity that will ensure world-class research.”

Thank you to Martin Fortier/ArcticNet for the beautiful photos of the Canadian arctic.

Christina Chant
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