Science & Tech

‘It’s been raining! In the High Arctic!’

The Canadian High Arctic Research Station is set to open in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, later this year. How will it affect our understanding and appreciation of the North and the rapid change occurring there? 

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During late spring in Cambridge Bay, in the very early morning, there’s an hour or so of muted light when the town’s 1,800 inhabitants are asleep, the dogs are curled in their plywood houses, and there’s not a snowmobile on the land, nor an aircraft or bird in the sky. The horizon to the east is a slash of rippled blood, and if you happen to be awake and outdoors and in a place with a view across the tundra, you can, in the silence, with a little imagination, see a thousand years into the past.

It wasn’t long ago in the High Arctic, under the illusion of planetary permanence, that you could conjure a similarly long view of the future. Nothing about the land or water or ice seemed likely to change.

“Unfortunately,” says Alexandre Langlois, whose research into snow and ice regularly takes him into the High Arctic, “the Far North is changing so fast right now, you can barely predict what’s going to be here in a decade, let alone a century.”

Langlois, 38, has been fascinated by snow since he was a child growing up in the Saint-Nicolas suburb of Quebec City. In those days, he examined snowflakes by the thousands, built snow houses he heated with candles; dreamt of the Arctic (“Maybe it was the Antarctic, and I didn’t recognize it.”). For the past 15 years, he has been studying snow in the most northerly parts of the country (his recent work, based in Cambridge Bay, involves using satellites to determine snow quality). And he’s increasingly alarmed by what he sees. “Often, we’ll discover a layer of ice maybe a centimetre or two thick, somewhere beneath the snow’s surface. What this means,” he says, “is that it’s been raining! In the High Arctic! It’s shocking at these latitudes. We see it more and more.”

Beyond its implications for humanity, the rogue ice, depending on its thickness, can affect caribou by preventing the animals from getting to the ground-level lichens on which they survive. It may also make migration more difficult — particularly for mothers with calves — as the herd moves to areas of better grazing.

Langlois confides that when he started work on his PhD in 2003, there was a radical but growing feeling among polar scientists that at the current pace of warming there would be no permanent ice left at the North Pole by 2085. “There will always be ice there in winter because of the months of darkness and cold,” he explains. “By the time I finished my PhD four years later, they were saying no ice by 2065.” By 2013, estimates had dropped to 2045. “And now,” says Langlois, “based on everything we’re seeing, the permanent ice will be gone by 2030 — just 13 years from now. Some scientists say 10.”

The past year has witnessed another record loss of permanent ice. “We keep hearing that people don’t believe in climate change — as if it were a religion of some sort,” says Langlois. He leans in, modulates his voice. “Climate change,” he says softly, “is not a religion. But what’s causing climate change is. I’m talking about consumerism — people’s commitment to junk, to stuff, to energy consumption?… the waste of oil, of plastics, of metals?… the production of greenhouse gases.”

Langlois has a reputation for good science and honest appraisals — and the jam to say what’s on his mind. In this case, his message is simple: “I’m very pessimistic.” But he is quick to emphasize he’s not despairing. “My life’s work, my mission, is to do research up here in the North, and to keep doing it — it’s who I am, it’s what I love: to keep widening the framework of awareness. We have to. If the day comes when society has evolved to a point where it’s ready to do something about all that’s gone wrong, we’ll damn well be ready to do it.”

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The entrance to the main research building on the CHARS campus, which officially opens later this year. (Photo: Neil Ever Osborne/Canadian Geographic)

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Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic

It’s in the spirit of this bold screed by one of Canada’s most-respected Arctic scientists that the campus of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (a.k.a. CHARS) in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, is set to open to the world during the autumn of 2017. For a planet in turmoil, and for hundreds of scientists that opening and all it represents can’t come too soon. The station will give researchers from Canada and other countries not just an organizing structure for their ambitions, but an unprecedented level of support, including state-of-the-art labs and electronics, comfortable residences, staging and debriefing areas, and transportation into the field — which is to say snowmobiles and all-terrain quads. And storage space. And lecture and conference rooms. And a pool for testing underwater autonomous vehicles. The facility’s necropsy lab is sufficiently cavernous that specimens as big as polar bears and narwhals (frozen or otherwise) can be slinged in on gantry cranes through 6.4-metre-high doors. On a more personal level, the facility will provide the welcome reassurances of community and home in a territory where up to now no home has existed for visiting scientists.

During the latter half of April and early May 2017, a half-dozen senior scientists and their student assistants arrived at the CHARS campus in one of a series of de facto test runs, during which the researchers, as well as administrative staff from Ottawa, made use of the site’s residences, although not the labs and technical facilities, which are still being completed.

Alexandre Langlois was among them, as was C.J. Mundy, from the University of Manitoba. Mundy has for years plied the latitudes of Peary and Franklin, most recently to study that humblest of Arctic flora, sea-ice algae. The small green being has been affected of late by the rising temperatures and thinning ice that are the consequences of a changing climate. “It’s one of those organisms,” says Mundy, “that’s so much bigger in the grand scheme than its simplicity might suggest.” For one thing, it transforms carbon dioxide — greenhouse gases — into simple carbohydrates, or organic energy. “But it’s also the foundation of a huge segment of the food web up here. It feeds the copepods, which feed the Arctic cod, which feed the seals, which feed the polar bears. Four quick steps up the food chain take you from this tiny vulnerable phytoplankton beneath the ice to the largest land predator on the planet.”

In the name of science, it should be noted that it’s not so much the study of Arctic algae that’s the challenge, but the harvesting of samples of it. The latter is a task that on successive days in early May found Mundy, his assistants and a guide racing across the frozen Arctic Ocean, on snowmobiles, sometimes for 10 hours at a stretch: stopping, clearing snow, drilling core samples, processing them, packing up, moving on, etc., until by late afternoon, as one student put it, “you feel as if your ass and spine are never going to be functional again — as if your face has been roasted on a spit.”

Another visiting scientist, Natalie Carter, travels not with ice drills or microwave radiometers but with a laptop, a bag of markers and a simple paper map of the Northwest Passage. More importantly, she travels with an openness and curiosity that serve her well in a land where an itinerant researcher can end up sleeping on a plywood floor in a shed full of furs, or bouncing for hours over uneven tundra in an Inuit komatik, or sled. As with Langlois and Mundy, it’s climate change that has drawn the University of Ottawa social scientist into the Far North. More specifically, it’s the widening channels of open water and the ever-lengthening shipping season — factors that together have prompted the federal government to create a new and expanded map of prescribed shipping corridors through the Canadian Arctic.

The project Carter is working on takes her to outports such as Gjoa Haven, Arviat and Pond Inlet, where she huddles with local residents, soliciting their views on how the expanded corridors might interfere with traditional hunting or fishing areas, or travel corridors — or with outlying camps or sacred ground. “Together,” she says, “we map out every piece of the territory that matters to them, whether it’s a huge tract of tundra or the tiniest island. When we have it all mapped, we’ll take it back to Ottawa, and the shipping routes and anchorages and so on will be adjusted to minimize their impact on the people.”

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C.J. Mundy (left) and Sun-Yong Ha, from the Korean Polar Research Institute, extract a core
from the ice to study sea-ice algae. (Photo: Neil Ever Osborne/Canadian Geographic)

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Alexandre Langlois uses a snowmobile to pull a sled laden with microwave radiometers, used in his research on snow. (Photo: Neil Ever Osborne/Canadian Geographic)

For the optimistic (and perhaps naive) observer, a part of the facility’s tantalizing appeal is that, over time, the research conducted there will catalyze a meaningful shift in the trajectory of a world that most scientists perceive to have gotten seriously off course. Administrators who are involved with operating the research station are almost preternaturally cautious about any suggestion that even a modest healing of the planet is at hand, much less within their capabilities. “Which isn’t to say we can’t sound the alarm, and continue to sound it,” says David Scott, the president and CEO of Polar Knowledge Canada, the federal agency that runs CHARS. “But our job for now is methodically to collect scientific evidence and to use it to construct a baseline of data. When we have that, we’ll be in a position to understand the changes that are taking place and to encourage governments and industry to address them.”

It is a matter of lingering ecological embarrassment that when the CHARS initiative began under the Harper government in 2007, climate change was not even listed among the station’s evolving priorities. Resource development was. But with the fall of the Conservative government in 2015 (and a slide in the value of certain metals and minerals), the emphasis on the extraction of resources was shifted to “resource and northern sustainability,” with a welcome new focus on the effects and causes of a rapidly changing climate.

A more immediate expectation for CHARS is that it will succeed in its mandate to radically change how science is conducted in the Canadian Arctic. After a century and a half of relative neglect by the scientific community (and in keeping with the government’s Truth and Reconciliation promises), the people for whom the Far North is home — 80 per cent of whom are Indigenous — are being invited at last into the scientific process. As a result, all applications for CHARS support or affiliation must include a plan for consulting northern communities and incorporating traditional Indigenous knowledge.

“If it works,” says University of Calgary social scientist Chui-Ling Tam, “it’s a recognition that Indigenous knowledge and traditions are not just some irritating rumour that science has to step over to reach the truth, but are the substance of survival and daily life up here, and are important to the process of discovery.”

Tam stayed at the CHARS campus while researching part of her own project, the gist of which is to discover how the global discourse on climate change affects the way isolated communities perceive or talk about climate. “I’m troubled by how the public dialogue has become this obsessively managed script, controlled by governments and academics, and how it seems to create little space for people up here to be heard,” she says. “People in remote little settlements in the Arctic are fed the same arcane script as people in New York and Toronto and Beijing — it’s about the Paris Accord and carbon tradeoffs and international emissions objectives, when what’s pertinent here is the fact that scrub growth on a tract of nearby tundra is taking over the lichens, and that eventually it’ll drive the caribou away because they’re so picky about what they eat. Or that the char fishing has collapsed, as it did last year both at Cambridge Bay and Kugluktuk. People don’t know whether the fish couldn’t get upstream because of low water related to warming, or whether the fish were just early or late.”

Likewise, Kim and Dave Crockatt, long-time residents of Cambridge Bay, speak of thunder storms that were non-existent when they came to the North nearly 40 years ago, but are now a regular feature of summer life. Kim recalls the first storm 20 years ago. “People were up on their roofs, amazed by the show. Dave had to urge them to get down, so they wouldn’t get electrocuted.” She mentions the recent arrival of dragonflies in Cambridge Bay and of bugs in Arviat that she says the Inuit language doesn’t even have names for. “And bald eagles,” says Dave. “People say they’ve seen them. Apparently, they were never here in the past.”

During the past five years, narwhals have shown up in Cambridge Bay, apparently chased into the shallows by orcas, which in late summer are no longer restricted by ice in the Dease Strait, which is increasingly open. At the same time, muskox on Victoria Island are suffering a widespread, fatal illness, thus far undiagnosed, although wildlife biologists believe the decline is linked to climate change.

“These are the sorts of things we should be talking about in the communities,” says Tam. “And maybe people will talk about them once CHARS comes fully to life.”

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An elder from Cambridge Bay works on a piece of embroidery destined to hang in one of the facility’s buildings. (Photo: Neil Ever Osborne/Canadian Geographic)

Meanwhile, the community’s most obvious point of contact with the new institution is its physical presence, its buildings, which have risen on the east boundary of Cambridge Bay like some chimera from a century yet to come.

Matthew Hough is an amiable and articulate man who for the past few years has served as the chief engineer for the construction of the CHARS campus. When he speaks of that campus, he’s both fluent and proprietary — and inclined to a little barbed humour. From the parking lot of Cambridge Bay’s newest restaurant, the Kuugaq Café, on a day in early May, Hough points across a kilometre of snow to the town’s refurbished DEW Line installation, an assemblage of bile-coloured metal boxes. “That is what we didn’t want CHARS to be,” he says straight-faced, “a place with no integration into the community” (and no aesthetic appeal, he might have added).

It’s certainly not what he and the community got. The campus is as welcoming and as specific to the Far North and its people as perhaps any building in the Canadian Arctic. Hough points out that the towering cone at the “public” end of the campus is intended to recall Indigenous tents from summers past, while the copper-coloured cladding was chosen as a tribute to the Copper Inuit, renowned for their reliance on local copper from the Lower Coppermine River and the shores of Coronation Gulf. The rectangular markings on the copper are a neatly Euclidean reminder of the intricate geometry of igloo-building. Even the front windows, magnificent in their scale and divided into panes, suggest the snow blocks of an igloo. The buildings’ interior expanses are a bona fide gallery of regional art: handmade wall hangings, floor spreads, Inuit sculpture, delicately etched glass.

Hough is proud of the campus’s conference and gathering spaces and of how every step of the facility’s design and construction was an exercise in community consultation. Water and power capabilities were developed so as to advantage the town as well as serve the campus. And more than a third of the campus’s $150-million construction expenditures to date have gone through Inuit-owned businesses from Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Polar Knowledge Canada is obliged to, in the course of time, have 80 per cent of the campus’s operating personnel be of Indigenous heritage. “Which is achievable,” says Scott. “But probably not for a few years.” It’s indicative of the shortage of jobs in the area that when the station’s full-time positions were advertised in November 2015, there were more than 600 applications, but fewer than 10 from those who identified themselves as Indigenous. So far, a handful of local Inuit have been hired to clean residences, while others have worked on the construction of the campus and residences. Two Inuit administrators and two Inuit technologists have also been hired.

Dwayne Beattie handles ground logistics for the campus and is a kind of major-domo for the residences, and thus knows the researchers, the administrators, the operations staff and the people at Polar Knowledge Canada. “One of the things everybody is proudest of,” he says, “is that CHARS just kind of vaults Canada onto the world stage for Arctic research.”

If the wide world is watching, it’s not watching nearly as closely as is the more compact world within a few metres of the CHARS doors. And, significantly, it’s that smaller world, the hamlet of Cambridge Bay, that CHARS must first embrace (and that must embrace CHARS) if the research station is to properly fulfill itself in the North. “What CHARS and its scientists may have to accept,” says Kim Crockatt, “is that they’ll be reaching out to folks who for a variety of reasons may not immediately reach back.”

Crockatt is president of the Kitikmeot Heritage Society, which she helped found during the early 1990s, to gather and preserve Inuit traditional knowledge. For CHARS, a strong relationship with the heritage society will provide pivotal access to the broader world of Indigenous history and culture in the area. “They’re very keen to work with us, and we appreciate that,” says Crockatt. “I just feel at this point they’re not quite sure how to go about it. I mean, we very much want to work with them, too. We feel we have a lot to offer. We’ve funded and carried out some big projects of our own.”

The problem over the years, says Crockatt, “is that researchers have too often come up here with a kind of arrogance — an attitude that somehow they’re the real people, and we’re just the supporting cast.” She recalls that when the archeologist Max Friesen, from the University of Toronto, came to Nunavut to do a study perhaps 15 years ago
(“this was a study we helped fund”), he revealed to Crockatt and others that he knew archeologists whose focus was Indigenous history but who resisted working with Indigenous people because their interpretation of artifacts and sites didn’t usually agree with the researchers’ own. “In other words, let’s not contaminate what we’re doing and what we ‘know’ by asking these locals for their perspective,” says Crockatt. “For the people here, it was bewildering. As it turned out, our elders actually led the research for Friesen’s study — directed the whole show out on the land.” Friesen eventually wrote a landmark paper challenging the view that valid research had to be scripted by academics, making it clear that there were other valid models.

It’s from that experience and others, says Crockatt, that there’s skepticism in the community — as well as perhaps a degree of what she calls “research fatigue.”

“Research is extractive,” says Chui-Ling Tam. “It takes from people and doesn’t give back. Some of the people here have put days, even weeks, into a researcher’s project, and in the end haven’t even been sent the results of the project.” When Tam called her first community meeting in Cambridge Bay in 2016 hoping to discuss climate change with interested residents, she was told by at least a couple of those residents that the meeting was a great idea, that they looked forward to it. “I put up posters, put it on the radio, handed out flyers, told everybody. I wish I could say it was a great meeting,” says Tam with a smile. “But absolutely nobody showed up. It was a bit of a reset for me.”

Asked if she can see a time when the heritage society might initiate projects of the sort CHARS is supporting in the university community, Crockatt says, “Definitely. We could lead projects right now. The problem is funding. We can’t get the grants that are available to university researchers. It’s all very paternalistic.”

Crockatt describes contact to date between the heritage society and CHARS as “very superficial.” The society was involved in the creation of art for the campus. “And we worked with them on signage,” she says, recalling that at one point elders provided advice on whether the symbol on the door of the women’s washroom should include an amouti (a fabric sling that Inuit women wear to hold a baby). “Very deep stuff,” she laughs. “If we’re going to work with them in the long run, it’s not going to be on that level. I’m imagining that when the dust settles, and they see what we have to offer, they’ll want it, and the relationship will blossom.”

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Children play in front of the main research building on the CHARS campus. (Photo: Neil Ever Osborne/Canadian Geographic)

When Alexandre Langlois comes off the frozen terrain along the Northwest Passage, on his snowmobile, late in the afternoon of May 12, 2017, his face is a wind-savaged mask, and his eyes look as if they’ve been scoured in vinegar. He has been out with his students, taking snow readings since seven in the morning, is exhausted to the core, but is nonetheless elated to have had another torturous day on the frigid terrain he loves. It has been a good week for the man whose nickname at university was Snowpit. A couple of days earlier he received notice that Polar Knowledge Canada would fund another two years of his research into satellite assessments of snow. However, what really seems to be juicing him as he sits down to talk a couple of hours later is that during the early afternoon, he and his proteges had come across a gaggle of high school students, with their teacher, way out on the tundra, gathering ice for the local elders. The kids were curious about what the researchers were doing.

“We took time to talk to them,” Langlois says. “We gave them some instruments, and they worked with us for an hour.”

Among the things he says during the next half hour is that his experience with the teenagers was one of the most rewarding he has had since his arrival in the Arctic a week earlier.

He says it gives him hope.

“As CHARS scientists,” he says, “we have to behave in such a way that the town, and ultimately the world, will respect us.” Says the most important achievement between people or groups in the Far North is mutual respect — and that it must be earned. Says Polar Knowledge Canada and those who work at CHARS are going to have to earn it, too, and it won’t be easy.

He says he tells his students that when they come to the Far North they shouldn’t disappear into their CHARS work but should go into town, go into the school, talk to the people. He says, “Sometimes people want an interaction.” Says he tells his students to allow inter­actions to happen.

He says he hopes CHARS and its scientists will always extend themselves to young people. Says, “Let’s teach the eight- and nine-year-olds what they can do in their everyday lives that will help make the planet a better place.” He says CHARS can be a leader. Says if this thing is done right, he believes there is a sliver of hope.


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