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The Arctic Institute: 70 years young

The Arctic Institute has operated Kluane Lake Research Station for over 50 years, which is located on the Silver Creek floodplain at the south end of Kluane Lake, 220 km NW of Whitehorse. © Lance Goodwin

Sometimes Canadians see value in the great white North, are proud of our Inuit citizens and their thousands of years of history, even see economic potential there. Most of the time, we perhaps don’t — perhaps a case of ‘out of sight’ since despite it making up 40 percent of the country’s land area, only 0.3 per cent of Canadians live north of the Arctic Circle.

The Arctic Institute of North America (AINA), has consistently championed the value of Canada’s North and provided a home for those studying and promoting its culture, science and wildlife. AINA celebrates its 70th anniversary in december.

Cold War origins

For all its years, AINA has proven to be an agile and ever-adapting creature. Born in the Cold War out of concerns that Canada and the U.S. both needed to do more to promote the study of their largely-ignored northern lands, the ’50s and ’60s saw it mainly active in the geosciences, running research stations on devon Island and in the Yukon and leading expeditions to Baffin and ellesmere Islands, as well as building a world-class Arctic research library and database. At that time based in Montreal, the institute also had offices in Ottawa, New York and Washington – locations that spoke to the political interest in the Arctic at the time.

By the seventies AINA had become primarily a Canadian institution (far from losing interest in the Arctic, the Americans had developed their own research facilities based in Alaska). It was physically relocated to Calgary where oil companies became major supporters of its Arctic research database (ASTIS), and its interests expanded to include biosciences, archaeology and atmospheric chemistry.

Global Warming future?

A region with changing ecosystems strongly affected by thinning sea-ice and rising sea levels, global warming has given the Arctic a new relevance not only to ordinary Canadians, but to people everywhere. The shrinking sea-ice cover means more serious interest in mineral exploration, and with it the likelihood of pollution in a uniquely sensitive environment. It also opens up the Arctic to increased shipping through the Northwest Passage, again with political and environmental consequences.

How has AINA adapted to this changing world? It has always been more of a place that hosts and facilitates science, rather than employing large numbers of researchers directly (even today it only has a full-time staff of 11). Its Arctic research station at Kluane Lake, two hundred kilometres northwest of Whitehorse, serves as a centre for scientists from a variety of institutions, not merely AINA researchers.

Community engagement

The way the Arctic Institute works has also changed — these days there is much more emphasis on public participation in its activities. For example, this summer AINA launched an Arctic wildlife monitoring initiative, but instead of a few academics counting birds, entire northern communities became engaged, armed with smart phone apps to participate in the study.

The project goes way beyond asking for help with data collection; it really puts the communities in the driving seat as far as to what data is collected and how the data is used. The communities with whom AINA is working are enthusiastic about the project because they can use the data themselves — to inform decision-making, wildlife management and policy, as well as furthering study on environmental issues that concern them.

One of the aims of the project is to work in partnership with communities, with the hope that the tools that AINA are developing will later be used to address other communitydefined research needs. It is really the complete opposite of the type of academic study that the Arctic Institute would have done 70 years ago — it’s a collaborative and innovative approach which reflects the way research in the North has changed and does credit to how Canada’s oldest Arctic research institution has successfully adapted to the 21st century.

David Millar is a Research Associate with the Arctic Institute of North America. arctic.ucalgary.ca