The Walrus Blog

Arctic Freeze Out

Is Canada dropping out of climate change research?
PEARLPaul LoewenCanada’s Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory

The Bank of Canada’s new $50 note features the Arctic research icebreaking ship CCGS Amundsen — a vessel which, according to the Bank, “reflects Canada’s commitment to Arctic research and the development and protection of northern communities.” But with the federal government’s recent confirmation to stop funding the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CFCAS), and the resultant grant cut to our High Arctic research station, the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), we’re forced to question: is Canada, perplexingly, retreating from climate change research at a time when knowledge is evermore valuable to the global conversation?

Canada’s environmental performance has never impressed (we are currently at the bottom in international rankings, such as our fifty-fourth global position in the recent Climate Change Performance Index), although the Martin and Chrétien Liberals pushed forth encouraging progress. Stemming from their innovations, university climatology programs attracted global experts and our Arctic research facilities fed data into a wide network of international centres. But this spurt was short-lived, and the country’s reputation in climate change science is declining: dozens of newly trained climate specialists are leaving the country en masse for jobs abroad. “We’re bleeding people,” atmospheric physicist Richard Peltier, the 2012 recipient of Canada’s top science prize, the Herzberg Gold Medal, recently told Postmedia News.

From a series of posts about underexplained people, places, and things that have arrested our collective attention.

Do you have a question about Canada and/or its place in the world? Ask The Walrus.

The Arctic — like the Antarctic — is an acutely sensitive ecosystem that feels atmospheric and temperature changes more drastically than other places, serving as an early warning system. For instance, its temperature rises at nearly double the average rate, while its enormous ozone hole is caused by CFC emissions from across the world. Researchers at the poles have pure access to the atmosphere, and can track miniscule changes in sea ice. Variations in the Arctic also affect global climate and environment patterns.

Canada is uniquely placed to conduct Arctic research vitally important for the health of the entire globe. The Canadian Arctic comprises 40 percent of the country’s landmass, and is home to 100,000 Canadians. We hold 20 percent of the world’s total freshwater resources — more than half of which are locked up in the Arctic. (By any prediction, freshwater and the Arctic are set to become extremely important geopolitical issues.) Now is the time for Arctic monitoring, as changes are dramatic and predictive of major global climatic shifts.

And yet Canada is dropping out of the climate change conversation by slashing climate and atmospheric research. CFCAS, the leading agency that, by its own estimation, supported about half of the country’s related research by distributing an average $12 million annually over the past decade, didn’t receive a funding renewal when its mandate expired on March 30. CFCAS was the backbone of many university research projects, as well as PEARL: Canada’s northernmost civilian research station at 80° north latitude. PEARL logged fluctuations in temperature, the ozone layer, and carbon in the atmosphere, and fed data to science programs around the world. This past Monday, the research station stopped fulltime, year-round operation; it is no longer monitoring the Arctic night and is unable to repair its multi-million dollar equipment. There are only a handful of facilities like it on the planet; nothing will fill the gap, and its near-closure means a black hole over a section of the Arctic where data used to be.

Some Canadians see the value of PEARL’s work: last month, CFCAS announced the transfer of $12,000 in private donations to the station, a small but heartfelt contribution to its annual $1.5 million operational cost. The federal government, through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, will distribute $35 million over five years for climate change and atmospheric research — an insufficient compensation for ending CFCAS’s much larger and more flexible grant.

Overall, federal funding for environmental research is decreasing (such as the recent massive cuts to Environment Canada), but the national situation is unclear. Even Gordon McBean, chair of CFCAS and president-elect of the International Council for Science, lacks exact figures, an obscurity of information he believes is deliberate. McBean is a member of the Order of Canada and a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Throughout his esteemed career, he has secured audiences with foreign presidents, but not with Canada’s prime or environment ministers — with the exception of Jim Prentice, who was Minister of Environment from 2008 to 2010.

This comes at a time when many other countries are increasing their environmental research. The European Union recently committed €25 billion over six years toward studying climate change. The US Environmental Protection Agency’s 2013 budget includes $105 million (US) for research on air, climate, and energy. Compare this with our federal government’s inability to rally $1.5 million to keep PEARL going. Thirty countries from disparate corners of the globe see the importance of research at the poles, and have stations at Antarctica; Canada is notably absent. Norway and the US recently held public assessment panels on national climate change action and prepared future plans, steps the current Canadian government has not taken.

Through the symbolism on the new $50 note, we can imagine that somewhere within the government there remains a sense that polar research is a proud Canadian value. But as the surrounding ice melts, and no one is there to hold on, that value is floating farther and farther away.

The Walrus thanks Gordon McBean, chair of the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences and president-elect of the International Council for Science.

Alina Konevski is an online editorial intern at The Walrus.

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Posted in Ask The Walrus  • 

  • Apprendreledessin

    We are all doomed, in my opinion.
    Climat changes will kill us.

  • Frenkspeer

    Yepp, these are my thoughts also

  • Guest

    I’ve been living overseas for three years, working in the sustainability field for cities.  What I read about Canada’s shift away from environmental research and commitments to enhance efficiency and cut emissions is dismaying.  At a time when the need to reduce our impact upon the environment we depend upon, and increase our understanding of how to do so and track our performance, is ever more clear, I can’t understand why our government could make such back tracking decisions.

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