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Pole to pole – Positive steps towards a Canadian Antarctic research program

Lake Bonney is a permanently ice-covered lake in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica. It is home to a diversity of cold-adapted microbes, including several species of green algae. It is one of many sites that Canadian researchers are using to carry out Antarctic research. © Kat Cuthriell

Canada is the second largest polar nation, and among the wealthiest, giving it a responsibility to lead in scientific research and knowledge dissemination of the circumpolar regions. In keeping with this, Canada has invested a significant amount of resources in Arctic science, culminating with the establishment of a world-class Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. In contrast, Canada’s activities in the Antarctic up to now have been sporadic and lacking in government support, oversight, and organization.

Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR), the federal government organization that oversees Canada’s involvement in the polar regions, convened a workshop in October in Ottawa, Ontario, which brought together prominent Canadians working in the Antarctic. The aim of this workshop was to garner ideas from the scientific community on the formation of a Canadian Antarctic Research Program.

The Canadian Antarctic Research Work­-shop was the first time scientific researchers, educators, investors, and policy makers, had come together to discuss the future of Canadian science in the southern polar regions. More than 80 participants from academia, government, and industry sat down in the beautiful Rotunda Room at the Canadian Museum of Nature and shared their visions of how Canada could establish itself as a leader in all things polar. Canadians are strong players in the field of international Antarctic research, having published hundreds of peer-reviewed papers on the topic in leading scientific journals, but further advancements in this field need to be backed by a government-supported Antarctic Research Program.

Challenges and opportunities: two sides of the same coin

Biologists studying unusual organisms thriving in frozen environments, geophysicists working on Antarctic ice sheets, and astrophysicists interested in the South Magnetic Pole all agreed that Canadian polar scientists need more funding to advance their research. While the Arctic is in Canada’s backyard, significant logistical support and money is required to get Canadians to the opposite end of the globe. Once there, researchers need access to sophisticated equipment for immediate and remote data collection, state-of-the-art research stations, well-equipped laboratories for scientific work, and polar-worthy ships and aircraft for field work and surveying. The costs associated with such ventures can be staggering: at the lower- cost end of the spectrum (in the hundreds of thousands of dollars) is data collection and analysis, and at the higher end (tens of millions of dollars) is the establishment of permanent infrastructure, such as ships and stations.

Despite the massive price tags and major challenges that accompany Antarctic research, the outlook for Canadian Antarctic science remains positive. Technological advancements can come from the pooling of resources, establishing partnerships, and sharing facilities and technologies. Canadians working in the Antarctic have had to be clever and resourceful when searching for ways to support their work, and many team up with researchers from other countries or organizations with longstanding traditions of Antarctic Research, including the U.S. Antarctic Research Program and the British Antarctic Survey. There are at least 30 countries that maintain seasonal or year-round research stations on the Antarctic continent, many of which welcome collaboration with Canadian scientists.

So, what does Canada have to offer in such partnerships? Quite a lot, in fact. For one, Canadians have extensive expertise and experience working in the extremely cold climates of the Far North — skills that can be easily translated and harnessed to the southern polar regions. One of Canada’s strongest suits is its ability to build and maintain equipment that can withstand harsh winter conditions. For example, the Calgary-based airline Kenn Borek Air boasts the largest fleet of ski-equipped Twin Otter airplanes routinely commissioned for scientific, exploratory, and rescue missions in the Antarctic. Canadians know how to keep warm too. Canada Goose apparel is not only popular on city streets, it is also the official clothing of the U.S. Antarctic Research Program.

What to do with the money?

One of the key questions posed to the participants of the Canadian Antarctic Research Workshop was: What can Canadians accomplish if provided with government funds for Antarctic studies? Well, when it comes to research, a little can go a long way. Even with small grants, Canadian researchers can train students and technical staff, and get them into the field to collect and analyze data. The next crucial step is to use the money for constructing and maintaining valuable equipment for cold-weather environments. Finally, funds can be employed to obtain biological or geological samples from the Antarctic, and invested in Canada-based facilities for further experimentation, such as the Biotron Experimental Climate Change Research Centre at the University of Western Ontario. Larger grants will ultimately lead towards the establishment of major research groups and centres of excellence, the construction of remotely operated survey systems, and the formulation of strategic questions and goals for Canadian polar scientists.

“Cautiously optimistic” was the term David J. Scott, the President of POLAR, used to describe the atmosphere at the meeting during his closing remarks. The number of Canadian researchers interested in the Antarctic has reached a critical mass that can support the establishment of a Canadian Antarctic Research Program; however, a big challenge will be to ensure that this program is independent, both financially and conceptually, of Canada’s efforts in the Arctic. The better we understand the Antarctic, the better we will understand all polar environments.

Marina Cvetkovska and David Smith

Dr. Marina Cvetkovska is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Western Ontario, where she studies the evolution of Antarctic algae in Lake Bonney (see photo). David Smith is an assistant professor at Western; he can be found online at arrogantgenome.com.