Canada’s new Arctic
research station opens
The new station in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut,
will study Arctic issues including climate change
this october, as the sun begins to settle low on
the horizon and the snow piles up in the Nunavut hamlet of Ikaluktutiak (Cambridge Bay), the
Canadian government will throw open the
doors to its new $250-million Arctic research
station. The copper-toned main research building at the heart of the complex, outfitted with
slick laboratories and a traditional knowledge
centre, aims to attract researchers from across
Canada – and the world – to generate new information about the North and put it in the hands
Researchers at the Canadian High Arctic
Research Station, or CHARS, will study Arctic
issues, including the impacts of climate change on
the land, ocean and lakes around Cambridge Bay.
Renewable energy, northern infrastructure and
the cryosphere (permafrost, snow and ice) are also
among its science and technology priorities.
The station’s location will bring researchers
to the edge of the Northwest Passage, an increas-
ingly popular marine corridor for tourist vessels
and cargo ships, and an area that hasn’t been
extensively studied, said Warwick Vincent, a pro-
fessor of biology and holder of the Canada
Research Chair in Aquatic Ecosystem Studies at
Université Laval. “It shows a long-term, substan-
tive commitment to Arctic research,” he said.
Yet researchers within the Canadian Arctic
science community are concerned that Arctic
research funds are tapering off – ArcticNet, created in 2003 through the federal Networks of
Centres of Excellence Program, will have its
funding wound down in 2018 after receiving a
total of $113 million for Arctic research over its
lifespan. With the heavy cost of CHARS, researchers worry smaller projects and stations may be
overshadowed. Others point out that fixed infrastructure in one part of Canada’s vast Arctic does
little to stimulate field research in remote areas.
“As university academics working in the
North, we are in a worrisome time. Major funding opportunities are drying up and there is a
focusing of resources towards CHARS,” said Dr.
Vincent. Nevertheless, the new research station
is “a net positive,” he said.
The station’s roots date back to 2007 in the
speech from the throne announcing the government’s commitment to building a “world-class”
Arctic research station. After considering several
possible sites, the then Conservative government
announced in 2010 that it would break ground
in Cambridge Bay, along the shores of the fabled
– and increasingly busy – Northwest Passage.
The multi-building station can house
researchers year-round and will indeed provide
them with “world-class” facilities to study Arctic
issues. The main building contains a necropsy
lab with a mounted crane to transfer muskoxen,
seal and other large animals onto the dissection
table. There is also a cold lab for studying insects,
seeds and ice cores, an ultra-clean lab for exam-
ining environmental contaminants, and a growth
chamber where scientists can investigate the
effects of carbon dioxide and warming on plant
growth. A genomics lab, a geographic informa-
tion systems lab, and rows of specimen freezers
and refrigerators round out the space.
“It is super handy to have a facility to do
necropsies,” said Susan Kutz, an associate professor in the faculty of veterinary medicine at
the University of Calgary who studies the impact
of climate change on the health of muskoxen,
caribou and other wildlife. Up until now, abnormal specimens had to withstand the long trip
down to Saskatoon, Calgary or Guelph, Ontario,
for further investigation. Some of the more
advanced analysis can now be done on-site, said
In addition to laboratory space, the facility
offers housing for up to 48 researchers at a time,
office space and access to equipment, including
snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles for transportation. The subsidized housing, which has
been available to researchers since April 2016,
has “totally changed the way we do research,”
said Dr. Kutz.
Accommodation in northern communities
can restrict the number of days researchers and
their students spend in a community because of
the high costs. If a storm rolls in and outgoing
flights are canceled, budgets can be stretched to
the breaking point.
CHARS is operated by Polar Knowledge
Canada, an agency whose board reports to Carolyn Bennett, the minister of the newly created
department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and
Northern Affairs (the federal government
recently announced it was splitting the department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs in
two). The station is also now part of the Canadian Network of Northern Research Operators,
a collection of several dozen institutes, observatories and ocean-going vessels in the Canadian
Arctic and sub-Arctic.
Polar Knowledge Canada has a budget of $29
million as of next year to cover operating costs,
staff salaries and research grants. In the most
recent call for proposals, the agency selected 43
In this photo from May 2017, the copper-toned cladding on the exterior of the main research building in
Cambridge Bay has been completed, while work continues on the interior.