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By Tim Lougheed

In 1958, when pioneering American submarines passed under the ice of the North Pole and surfaced there, it was big news. In 2007, when a much more modest Russian submersible left a titanium version of its national flag on the North Pole site of the Arctic Ocean floor, it was even bigger news.

The intervening five decades have witnessed a range of significant changes in the Arctic environment, with warming temperatures and declining sea ice that could open up the region to commercial shipping within the next five decades. The flag-planting might have amounted to a stunt, but it put everyone on notice that these changing conditions are making it possible for countries and corporations to take advantage of the Arctic as never before. The indomitable Northwest Passage that devoured sailing ships and their crews is long gone, supplanted by a fresh, promising landscape that is still harsh, but increasingly manageable.

“People around the world recognize that although they don’t live there and they have never been there, things are very different there, and maybe that’s got an impact on the global system in which we all live,” says David Scott, Executive Director of the Canadian Polar Commission.

This federal organization was created in 1991 to help Canadians manage the growing body of news and knowledge about both of our planet’s polar regions. Unfortunately, it began to suffer from a steady bureaucratic neglect, so that by the time Russia was demonstrating its own Arctic intentions at the North Pole, the Commission was heading into two full years of bare-bones operation without even a board of directors.

This lean period came to an end with the advent of Canada’s Northern Strategy, published in 2009, and the Commission found itself with a revamped, high profile board the following year. By the end of 2012, when the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development sought expert input on the country’s Arctic policy, they approached the Polar Commission. Scott testified for the committee, as did Bernard Funston, the prominent lawyer and lifelong Northerner who chairs the Commission’s board.

When asked about the nature of Canada’s activities in the Arctic, Funston outlined different roles presented by the region: a pristine wilderness, teasing our imaginations; a frontier, packed with economic opportunity; a laboratory for scientific investigation; and a homeland to part of the country’s population, himself included. He emphasized that this latter role should be uppermost in the minds of all Canadians as they consider the disposition of the country’s remote northern outposts.

“If you want to engage in a thought exercise, think about how a person living in Ottawa would react if northerners were having almost daily, around the planet, conferences on how people in Ottawa should structure their affairs and how they should be more environmentally responsible or more economically responsible,” he told the committee. “That’s the pressure that people of the North feel.”

For Scott, such direct clarification of complex issues is integral to the Commission’s revitalized mandate.

“We’re a knowledge brokerage, essentially,” he explains. “Our stock in trade is understanding what’s happening in the North, what the knowledge needs are in the natural sciences and social sciences, what’s happening with traditional knowledge. We very much pride ourselves in being aware of what the North is saying about various things, and then trying to turn that around in Ottawa, in the federal system.”

He credits the turnaround in the Commission’s fortunes to a keen interest in the North by many members of the current government, especially Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has gone to the Arctic at least once in every year of his term. “He’s absolutely passionate about it,” notes Scott.

As a further measure of the Commission’s renewed status, Scott points to its recently added responsibility for the Northern Scientific Training Program, which provides more than $1 million annually to hundreds of students at some three dozen Canadian universities who are pursuing research work in the North. Established in 1961, the program is aimed at building a cadre of Arctic expertise commensurate with the expanse of Canada’s northern territory.

The Polar Commission has also taken over the administration of the Northern Science Award, a prestigious medal presented to individuals whose work represents a distinguished contribution to the region’s research work. Created for the centennial of the original International Polar Year in 1982, the medal became another victim of neglect and had not been awarded since 2006, until 2013.

He also anticipates greater public outreach to enhance the Commission’s profile. While the organization answers directly to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, and collaborates with other branches of government such as Natural Resources Canada and Environment Canada, it has also built relationships with the Canadian Museum of Nature and the Royal Canadian Geographic Society.

Nor does Scott want to stop at institutional links. Earlier this year he showcased the Commission’s activities to the country’s science writing community. The Canadian Science Writers’ Association and the Association des communicateurs scientifiques, which have a combined membership of more than 600 people engaged in some aspect of communicating science and technology, held a joint annual meeting in Montreal at the beginning of June. The program included presentations by Scott and four researchers affiliated with the Polar Commission. Each of them was peppered with questions from an audience made up of people who regularly delve more deeply into research questions than most journalists would ever care to do. And Scott, for his part, promised that the answers would be more complete and candid than journalists have come to expect from government sources.

“The federal government doesn’t create this knowledge to keep it in a box; generally they want to get it out the door,” he said, answering an initial question about the notorious “muzzling” of scientists in the public sector. He added that official scripts these scientists are to follow in their public comments are not necessarily a means of stifling the flow of information, but instead intended to ensure that those comments do not stray into the thorny field of personal opinion.

“The line that is drawn there is that the scientists should talk about the scientific results and make an attempt to explain why it’s relevant, but not make policy,” he explained, noting that a health researcher’s observations should stop short of setting health guidelines, which is a different matter altogether.

This distinction was put to the test during the subsequent four presentations, which captured the diversity of the work that passes through the Polar Commission’s hands. Jeff Saarela, a botanist with the Canadian Museum of Nature, recounted his 2012 expedition to collect plants in a seldom visited territorial park on Baffin Island. A local caribou survey was taking place at the same time, so rather than using aircraft that might disturb these animals, Saarela and his colleagues travelled by inflatable canoe.

At first glance, his pictures of the journey looked downright romantic, but he cautioned that insects and weather made for some uncomfortable conditions. More importantly, they were able to take hundreds of specimens and visit a stand of willows touted as Nunavut’s tallest forest, featuring shrubs as tall as 3.5 metres with trunks up to 15 centimetres across. A sheltered, moist location has prompted this remarkable growth, though Saarela suggested a warmer climate is foreshadowing the expansion of this kind of ground cover.

“We know that shrubs, for example, are getting bigger,” he said. “There’s not a lot of evidence so far that plants are extending their ranges within Arctic Canada, but if we have a good solid baseline, we’ll be able to track that in the future, if it happens.”

Crystal Ernst, a doctoral student in entomology at McGill University, offered another aspect of tracking change in the Arctic. She argued that while large animals such as bears and seals capture the most public attention, a much greater scope of activity could be monitored amongst arthropods, the wealth of insect life that exists in the Arctic.

“Terrestrial arctic biodiversity is dominated by arthropods,” she said. “There’s a couple of dozen species of birds and mammals up there, there’s 2,000 species of arthropods living above the tree line in Canada. When it comes to biodiversity in the North, polar bears are sexy, I know. But we humbly have to suggest that the spiders, the insects, the mites are where the real excitement is to be found.”

And for others, that excitement is found at an even smaller scale, examining the microbiological makeup of the Arctic. Wayne Pollard, a McGill geography professor, described his multidisciplinary research into how the dynamics of frozen ground determine the nature of the organisms found there. The results of this work have implications for the ambitious quest to identify some other part of the universe where life may have gotten a start, a quest that has focused intensely on the planet Mars.

“Mars is the logical place to go,” he said. “It’s the nearest planet, it has a similar geology, it has very similar history in
terms of geologic evolution.”

That similarity extends to physical features found in many Arctic and Antarctic landscapes, where liquid water — an essential component of life as we know it — is tucked into the most unlikely places.

“We build a story about the evolution of ground ice,” said Pollard. “We look at everything from the chemistry, noble gases, isotopes, stratigraphy, crystallography. Knowing the origin of the ice, the age of the ice, is a really important part of understanding where ice might be in any landscape, including Mars.”

And just as automated explorers are standing in for us on Mars, a fourth speaker pointed out that robotic technology is making similar inroads in the ongoing exploration of the Arctic environment. Gregory Dudek, who directs McGill’s School of Computer Science as well as a national field robotics research network, outlined some of the practical devices that are being designed to travel almost anywhere in the North, collecting scientific data that might otherwise remain unobtainable.

“For me, building self-aware, moving organisms is the most provocative, imaginative thing I can imagine doing with my life,” he said, adding that he is not alone, and there is a broad spectrum of international activity in robotics for various applications. “It’s a real challenge for Canada to keep up. The attempt is not to build robotic systems that span the country, but to link together researchers across the country who can do robotics as this field matures.”

Nevertheless, even the most sophisticated tools of scientific discovery can only go so far in telling us how we might want to live our lives. Just as Scott offered up the distinction between information and opinion with respect to the comments journalists should expect from the scientific community, Polar Commission Board Chair Bernard Funston made the matter even clearer to members of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development. When asked about how the ecosystems of the Arctic should be managed, Funston reminded the Committee that it is people who make the ultimate decisions about management, decisions that science merely informs.

“It helps make choices, but politicians are the people who make the decisions about competing interests,” he explained. “As I said, I use that analogy of frontier, homeland, laboratory, and wilderness. Those are all valid ways of looking at the North. How do you decide whether you’re going to drill for oil or allow polar bear hunting? There’s a political decision and a choice in that, and sometimes you don’t have the information. Sometimes the science doesn’t tell you what to do.”