I was in a Twin Otter, flying south from Ellesmere Island in the High Arctic in the summer of 1999, after spending time digging into the side of a barren hilltop with paleontologist Richard Harington of the Canadian Museum of Nature. Harington was searching for the fossil remains of plants and animals that were swept into a beaver pond there about 4.5 million years ago. Leaning over into the cockpit, I told veteran pilot Duncan Grant about Harington’s findings, which included evidence of extinct miniature beavers, three-toed horses and ancestral black bears living in a place where summers were as warm as those today in the Yukon, hundreds of kilometres to the southwest.
Grant, a legendary curmudgeon, was not easily impressed. He had been flying scientists in and out of remote Arctic camps for three decades. But even he shook his head in amazement. He also reminded me that the Arctic had just come off one of its hottest years on record.
Grant was also not surprised to learn that Harington was running low on funding. In the recession of the early 1990s, then finance Minister Paul Martin had called for up to 30 percent cuts across the board to balance the federal budget. The cuts had forced the Polar Continental Shelf Program, the government project that paid Grant to fly scientists like Harington in and out of remote field camps, to shut down its western Arctic base at Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T. And renowned scientists, including muskox biologist David Gray, one of Harington’s colleagues at the museum, suddenly found themselves out of a job. Others moved on to less expensive research because they could no longer afford the high cost of travel in the North.
Nearly an entire generation of young northern scientists was lost to Canada in those years. Among the promising prospects, biologist Andrew Derocher moved to Norway, where he became one of the world’s leading polar bear experts. Badly needed upgrades to aging research facilities, including the Kluane Lake Research Station in the Yukon and the Churchill Northern Studies Centre on Hudson Bay in Manitoba, were deferred. Federal funding for research on endangered Arctic animals, such as the Peary caribou, disappeared.
As the millennium drew to an end, the situation hit rock bottom. The Haughton Crater research site on Devon Island was taken over by nasa and the Mars Society, with an operating budget that made most Canadian scientists look like beggars. In 1999, a University of Pennsylvania archaeology team received permission to conduct research at the fossilforest site on Axel Heiberg Island that Canadian James Basinger had been carefully excavating for more than 15 years. As innocent as the gesture may have been, when the better-financed Americans raised a skull and crossbones alongside the Stars and Stripes to mark their camp that summer, it rubbed salt into Basinger’s wounds.
“It tears at the soul to see this happening,” he said as we witnessed the scene that summer. “This puts an end to my work here. But what really worries me is what this is doing to the fossil forest. And what message does it send to other Canadian scientists who have been doing long-term polar research?”
Having spent the better part of 30 years working with scientists in field camps, on icebreakers, on sea ice and on glaciers throughout the Arctic, usually as a journalist, sometimes as a participant, I have often asked myself the same question. I have written about it in this magazine, in several newspapers and in a commentary for Arctic, the journal of the Arctic Institute of North America. The fragmented, underfunded approach to Arctic science that became the norm in the 1990s, as leading researchers repeatedly warned, left scientists without a voice in shaping public policy on climate change, sovereignty, security and environmental and cultural integrity in a rapidly developing Arctic world.
Since that embarrassing low point, significant progress has been made in reinstituting funding to northern science, by way of several singular events. In 2003, the Coast Guard icebreaker Sir John Franklin, retrofitted and renamed the Amundsen, was turned over to a team of international scientists led by Université Laval’s Louis Fortier and University of Manitoba’s David Barber. It has since served as a floating lab on the Arctic Ocean. ArcticNet, based at Université Laval in Quebec, enables scientists and managers to collaborate with partners from government agencies, Inuit organizations and northern communities, as well as with foreign researchers. The Canadian Coast Guard itself now plays an increasingly important role in supporting these scientists, including geographer Barber and oceanographers Fortier and Eddy Carmack of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Institute of Ocean Sciences. All are heading up groundbreaking research in the Arctic Ocean.
Also in the works are plans for a new Arctic research station in Nunavut, either at Cambridge Bay, Pond Inlet or Resolute. And through an $85 million Arctic Research Infrastructure Fund, part of the federal Economic Action Plan, the research stations at Kluane, Churchill, Inuvik and elsewhere are getting overdue fix-ups.
The biggest financial breakthrough came in 2007, with the arrival of International Polar Year (IPY). This collaborative worldwide research effort, first staged in 1882-83 and repeated in 1932-33 and 1957-58, has made Canada a bona fide leader in Arctic science investment for the first time. The Canadian government allocated more than $150 million for IPY research projects and outreach programs. Canada’s contribution — among the top five of the 62 participating countries — continues to foster international co-operation in the Arctic and has set the stage for observational networks and ongoing science that will help policy-makers plan for the future.
IPY has also played a major role in educating southern Canadians about what is happening in the polar world, and it has made it clear to northerners — Inuit, Inuvialuit, Dene and Gwich’in — that they are, and will continue to be, partners in Arctic science. The Canadian IPY program provided scholarships for promising young Arctic scientists and technical training opportunities for Inuit and First Nations people. Now, better than ever before, we know how quickly the ice is retreating, how fast the permafrost is thawing and how climate change is affecting the well-being of northerners. And younger researchers are poised to take over the role that veterans in the field have been playing.
With most IPY-related fieldwork done and funding spent, many Arctic scientists are wondering what’s going to happen next. Despite the enormous boost from IPY, there is a genuine fear that they’ll have to return to hitching rides on foreign research ships and seeking funding from sources outside Canada. This is true, and is already happening, to some extent. Polar Shelf was so tight for money in 2008 that glaciologist Martin Sharp, for example, decided to cut his own work and that of a post-doctoral researcher so that his students with Devon Island projects under way could complete them.
Scientists are just starting to assess their IPY data, and Carmack, among others, insists it will take a generation of study to really understand how the Arctic Ocean is responding to and influencing climate.
“We know that the ocean plumbing that has helped keep the Arctic cold for so long is changing,” says Carmack. “But we are only beginning to understand how that is affecting marine life and climate. In many ways, it’s a black hole that we’re looking into. This is really the last unexplored wilderness in North America.”
In the meantime, the rest of the world is pulling ahead of Canada in planning for the future of Arctic science. Not a week goes by without an international newsletter administered by the Arctic Research Consortium of the U.S. advertising an Arctic research position. In the past year, virtually every one of those job offers has come from the United States, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland or Germany. Very few positions were listed by Canada.
There are few mechanisms to keep the momentum of IPY going in Canada, aside from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (nserc) and the federal government’s creation in 2008 of a permanent program of Canada Excellence Research Chairs in universities across the country. The Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CFCAS) has run out of money to fund climate-change research, and the federal government has been dithering about its future. And nserc’s own Special Research Opportunity program, which provided funding for unique research projects that are timely, urgent and of high risk, was a casualty of the federal budget of the winter of 2009.
Other government departments or agencies can’t make up for the shortfall either. For example, Environment Canada’s science division is so cash-starved that its scientists can’t afford to partner up with research initiatives such as the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory. This year-round facility at Eureka on Ellesmere Island, a beneficiary of the federal infrastructure program, probes the atmosphere in the High Arctic to understand atmospheric conditions linked to ozone, air quality and climate change. But unless funding for Environment Canada and CFCAS is rejuvenated, the chances of keeping the lab going are slim. “I can write a great proposal for continuing the science,” says lab director Jim Drummond, “but I have nowhere to send it.”
Like Carmack’s ongoing study of Arctic oceanography, Drummond’s research is not something that can be stopped and started on a dime. Closing for a year, even a few months, would result in a large gap in the data. A case in point is the recent collapse of some caribou populations. Some of the long-term studies that would have helped us understand what is going on now were cancelled in the 1990s.
Many scientists, especially those in universities, are questioning whether they should even be encouraging students to take up Arctic research. Andrew Derocher is one of them. He was initially optimistic about returning to Canada after the University of Alberta offered him a full professorship to bring him back from Norway in 2002. A plan at the time by the former Liberal government to create 24 university research chairs in polar science suggested that the Canadian government was finally taking the North seriously. But, in the end, only six chairs were established. Now most of the money Derocher has to study polar bears in Canada comes from the United States.
Over the years, there have been calls for a University of the Arctic, a federal ministry of the Arctic and a Canadian Polar Institute, based, in part, on the Norwegian model. There have also been calls for a Canadian ambassador for the Arctic, to replace the one the Conservatives did away with several years ago. But none of these ideas have come to fruition.
Drummond and Sharp agree there’s a real danger that, despite the infusion from IPY, the problems of a decade ago may be repeated. “The opportunities in other countries are now better, and our young scientists are moving to greener pastures,” says Drummond. “One can hardly blame them. It is difficult to get young scientists to join the program when you only have a few months of funding to offer.”
“I don’t want to sound like a scientist whining for more funding,” says Sharp. “The fact is that we’ve trained all these great students and post-docs in polar research during IPY, and now there are few opportunities for them to continue this work in Canada.”
There are no easy solutions to the challenges that climate change and resource development present in the Arctic. While scientists and some policy analysts have a good idea of what the Arctic is going to look like down the road — summers will be longer, navigation through Arctic waters will be extended, shorelines will erode, species will move northward and others will disappear, new diseases will emerge — they’re still a long way away from figuring out how we can adapt and respond to, or perhaps in some cases exploit, the situation.
With IPY coming to a close, it is more urgent than ever for the government to come up with a long-term strategy recognizing that support for scientific research is inextricably tied to security and sovereignty, economic development, environmental protection, wildlife conservation and Inuit and First Nations culture. The government needs to develop more partnerships within its own ranks, including, most obviously, the Department of National Defence, and improve relationships with universities and non-governmental organizations that already support Arctic science in a significant way.
Three years ago, as IPY was just getting under way, I spoke with John Smol, a Queen’s University paleolimnologist and recipient of the 2004 Herzberg Medal, Canada’s top science prize. Even then, Smol was becoming frustrated by the apparent absence of a multi-year, coordinated approach to understanding what it is going on in the Arctic.
“We should be paying attention, but we’re not,” he said. “Maybe it’s because there are few voters up there. Politicians have a difficult time appreciating that half of Canada’s real estate is Arctic and that two-thirds of its coastline is in the Arctic. On one level, we have a responsibility to be stewards of this big piece of real estate. But even for selfish reasons, we should be concerned, because the changes taking place there are eventually going to catch up with what is happening down here.”
It’s tempting to suggest that we start all over, but the fact is that there are a lot of very good people in government working on various Arctic projects. All they need is a dedicated budget to help them monitor and address the many changes that will take place in the Arctic over the years ahead. There are also a lot of top-notch scientists working in universities. A stable funding mechanism needs to be put in place to assure these scientists that the research they and their students start can be completed in 5, 10 or 15 years. Canada also needs find a way of promoting more of the international networking that has made, for example, David Barber’s Circumpolar Flaw Lead Study System so successful.
None of the many urgent, emerging questions in the Arctic are going to be answered overnight. This, of course, will require vision, and acceptance of the fact that what happens in the Arctic matters not only to the people of the North. It matters to the entire world.