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People & Culture

Q&A with arctic researcher Donald Forbes

  • Nov 18, 2014
  • 815 words
  • 4 minutes
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Donald Forbes celebrated his 19th birthday on top of the Barnes Ice Cap, in the centre of Baffin Island. That was 1968, when he was a student field assistant with the Geological Survey of Canada, and the trip, along with a stint in the Yukon’s Saint Elias Mountains the previous year, marked the start of his now 46-years as an Arctic scientist.

Now an emeritus research scientist for the Geological Survey of Canada, as well as an adjunct professor of geography at Newfoundland’s Memorial University, Forbes continues to do what he does best: taking his own research — in Arctic coastal erosion, natural hazards in coastal regions, sea-level change, storm surges and changing ice conditions, among a slew of other specialties and interests — and collaborating with other scientists and leaders to apply that research to public policy, adaptation planning and sustainable development in the North.

On winning the Martin Bergmann Medal
When I heard about this nomination I said, “You’re crazy!” I can think of so many researchers whom I believe are more deserving of this. But this is personally moving as well, because it’s wonderful to receive an honour in the name of Marty Bergmann, who was a good friend and an inspired northern leader. He was a passionate advocate for research in the North, and he knew how to bring people together and inspire innovation.

On what first drew him to the Arctic
I had a passion to see the North from sometime early in my teens. My father was a navigator in the Air Force, and at one time headed its aviation school, and used to take training flights in the Arctic, so he was always interested in it.

I was lucky enough to be taken on by the Geological Survey of Canada as a summer student in 1968, and went to Baffin Island. There was a romance about the remoteness and history of the Arctic, and what I encountered there was an exquisite beauty, and silence like I’d never had anywhere else — silence that you could practically hear, if that makes sense. Over time, most of my work, which was in natural science, was primarily directed at an understanding of Arctic coastal processes the need to make it applicable to the challenges that Northern communities are facing.

On understanding the Arctic
The Arctic is a bellwether for changes that are occurring globally. It matters to all Canadians, because the wellbeing of our economy and society and the health of our people ultimately depend on our stewardship of the whole planet. We have a huge moral and ethical responsibility in the North to manage that environment and to recognize the changes that are occurring, to find ways of helping the people who live there to adapt.

One thing we’re doing right now is developing ways of facilitating more knowledge sharing between southern researchers and northern communities. We’re hoping to increase the capacity of communities to acquire and manage knowledge themselves, and to share that knowledge between communities around the North.

On interdisciplinary, collaborative Arctic research
The challenges in the North require a broad approach. Over the years I’ve worked on many teams and I’ve written very few single-author publications, because most of my work is with people with a variety of talents and expertise. Also, we believe very strongly that to address challenges of environmental, social, cultural change in the North, we must bring to bear a range of knowledge from a range of expertise and perspectives, including the perspectives of northern residents.

On rapid climate and geological change
There’s always been change, but the accelerated change of the last few decades are, of course, a great concern. As we lose more sea ice, we have more open waters, so the potential for storm impacts on coastal communities is greater. We don’t have very strong evidence history of an increase in the rates of coastal erosion — yet — but we see very rapid erosion and we believe that this is coming, particularly in places like the Beaufort Sea, where the coast is mostly composed of ice-rich sediments that are subject to erosion both by wave impacts and by more rapid thaw.

On how this change can affect culture and societies
With rapid rates of erosion we’re seeing a loss of cultural resources. In the western Arctic we have been working with Parks Canada on identifying archeological resources that are subject to erosion, and trying to prioritize the sites where salvage archeology may need to be done earlier than in other places. At one site west of Herschel Island there’s a log cabin that was built in the 1930s and the cabin has been getting closer and closer to the edge of a cliff. It was right on the edge in 2012, and when colleagues flew back this summer they found that it’s now overhanging.


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