Researchers finally get busy in the Arctic

Elsie Ross
May 24, 2022

The $14.5 million over five years in this year’s federal budget for the High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, will enable operator Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR) to complete its construction, according the organization’s chief scientist.

“Budget 22 provides some really critical investments to ensure that the High Arctic Research Station will be able to support the research that’s currently underway,” David Hik told Research Money.

Although the 8,000-square-metre facility is fully operational, final finishing of the laboratory spaces is still outstanding, along with a few other items in the construction contract. “I’d say that over the next two years, we’ll be able to finish most of that,” he said.

Plans for CHARS were announced 15 years ago under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, but the centre was not officially opened until 2019. Then, because of COVID, it was not open for another two years. This summer, though, CHARS is back in operation, with 50 researchers working on any given day.

That level of activity will continue through the whole season, said Hik, who also is POLAR’s executive director of programs. “It’s good to see it buzzing, and we’ve just got to finish getting a few of the last bits and pieces in place.”

Research that is part of the community

Polar Knowledge Canada has a $32 million annual budget that supports its science and technology and knowledge mobilization programs, as well as CHARS operations.

Although POLAR has a minister (Northern Affairs), Hik explained that it also has a board of directors and works closely with Parliament to periodically define its research priorities. Within the current science and technology framework that covers the 2020-2025 period, POLAR has core projects, usually co-developed with its northern and Indigenous partners.

He added that the location of Polar Knowledge headquarters in Cambridge Bay is significant.

“We are part of that community and it makes things a lot easier really, in efforts to work towards finding solutions, challenges for things that people [in southern Canada] take for granted,” he said.

POLAR has its own research program in three different areas: ecosystems and climate change; community wellness and environmental health; and sustainable energy, clean energy, and cold climate tech.

Within the ecosystem work there’s a focus on permafrost and characterizing northern biodiversity using genomic techniques as well as traditional knowledge.

In the second area, researchers do a lot of work on species that are harvested, such as muskox, caribou, arctic char and seals, looking mostly at wildlife health. “Veterinarians need to understand how climate change or changes in population density might influence wildlife disease, both the prevalence of diseases and emerging diseases,” said Hik.

POLAR researchers also are looking at how to adapt clean energy and renewable energy technologies such as wind, solar, and tidal. “We’ve just started a biofuels project with the National Research Council, looking at food waste diversion in northern communities.”

Communications technology is another critical area of research in the north, where internet users can only gain access through orbiting satellites with limited bandwidth.

In addition to its own staff, the agency provides various types of support to external researchers, other Canadian government departments, northerners and northern agencies, academics, and international partners that want to use CHARS. POLAR’s annual budget includes about $7.8 million that is disseminated through grants and contributions, to support partners and collaborators that are involved in various aspects of research in northern Canada. Hik noted that most funds go to Indigenous nations and communities in the north to support the priorities they have identified.

Arctic crossroads for the world

POLAR also is the adhering body for a number of international organizations in the Arctic and the Antarctic. Among the latest of these international initiatives are 13 new projects funded through the new Canada-Inuit Nunangat-United Kingdom (CINUK) program, which is investing $18.2 million from 2021-2025 [see last week’s Short Report]. These projects will address areas such as Arctic shipping, wildlife health, country foods, ecosystem health, safe travel, search and rescue, renewable energy, community health, coastal erosion, and plastics and pollution.

CINUK partners and funders include the national representative organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the British scientific support agency United Kingdom Research and Innovation, POLAR Knowledge Canada, the National Research Council of Canada, Parks Canada, and the Fonds de recherche du Québec (FRQ).

According to Hik, all CINUK projects were co-developed with the Inuit and each had a Canadian, an Inuit and a UK lead.

“That’s sort of a model that we see for the development of collaborative projects in the future,” he said. “The funding can come from various sources, but be co-ordinated through a common call, addressing priorities that Northern and Indigenous organizations in the Northeast identify.”

Projects can be targeted, either regionally or around different topics, but then are adjudicated with a multi stakeholder review involving community members and Indigenous organizations, evaluating the need and value of particular projects.  POLAR also has two memorandums of understanding with Indigenous organizations in the north, one with ITK and one with the Gwich’in in the western Arctic.

The National Research Council has integrated a similar model into its recently launched seven-year Arctic and Northern Challenge program, said Rachelle Bruton, director of the National Programs Office, at the recent Research Money conference.

She described that model as a consortium within Canada consisting of Polar Knowledge, Parks Canada, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Fonds de recherche du Québec. The consortium, which she acknowledged was “years in the making”, issued a joint call for research proposals in support of themes connected to climate driven changes to land, the coastal offshores, and marine life.

“The interesting thing about this was that we designed the program very differently than we’ve designed any of the [other] programs,” she said. “So from the onset, we had Inuit involvement in the design of the program.”

POLAR also takes part in programs led by the Arctic Council, a forum to foster co-operation and co-ordination among the eight nations that border this part of the world, as well as Indigenous peoples and other regional stakeholders. However, the council’s work has been suspended indefinitely after the invasion of Ukraine by member-state Russia.

In the short term, this situation could indirectly affect some POLAR work, such as this year’s plan to host a summer field school established by the Council. However, if an ongoing political rift leads the Council to exclude Russia, serious gaps in Arctic research will result.

Hik concluded that the Council’s work could continue in a truncated way, but it will be necessary to ensure that vital scientific information is not lost.

“In the long term, 40 per cent of the Arctic is Russian, and understanding the changes that are taking place in the Arctic requires at some time in the future re-establishing those connections with Russia and Russian researchers and organizations,” said Hik. “I think there will need to be some effort to figure out how not to entirely sever the relationships that we have with Russia in the Arctic but it’s very difficult to see [right now].”


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