University of Calgary

Northern Exposure


Undergraduate geology students climb on an iceberg frozen into the sea ice on Otto Fiord in northwest Ellesmere Island, July 2008.
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By Grady Semmens
Principal photography by Benoit Beauchamp

Researchers’ sleeping quarters at Borup Fiord Pass on Ellesmere Island.  Located some distance away is the kitchen tent, protect

Researchers’ sleeping quarters at Borup Fiord Pass on Ellesmere Island. ocated some distance away is the kitchen tent, protecting researchers rom hungry polar bears that might be attracted to the smell of food.
It WAS FEBRUARY 18, JUST 24 HOURS before Barack Obama, the United States of America’s newly-elected “rock star” president was due to arrive in Ottawa for a goodwill meeting with Canadian leaders on his first official foreign visit. In the middle of the last-minute military operations and security briefings for Obama’s highly publicized meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, two Canadian fighter jets had to be dispatched to peacefully intercept a long-range Russian bomber that was nearing Canadian airspace in the Arctic. News of the incident didn’t surface until a week after and was largely reported as a footnote to the more exciting diplomatic events. Russian officials brushed it aside, saying Canada was told in advance of the fly-by. But that didn’t stop Harper and Defence Minister Peter MacKay from assuring the public that the Russians were told to “back off” in no uncertain terms and that Canada was committed to standing up to the increasing activity along our northern borders in recent years.

The timing may have been a coincidence but the underlying message was loud and clear: The North is no longer considered a frozen expanse of sparsely populated tundra. It is now the hottest property in the northern hemisphere. And the race is on for circumpolar nations to stake their claim around the Arctic Circle.

“We are witnessing a perfect storm of issues converging in the North right now, including climate change, untapped energy resources and concerns about national security and sovereignty,” says Benoit Beauchamp, executive director of the U of C-based Arctic Institute of North America. “We are heading into a period of dramatic change in the North and that has the potential to bring a lot of good and a lot of bad to the environment and the people who live there,” Beauchamp says. “It is an exciting time to be an arctic researcher, but the challenges that lie ahead are also quite daunting.”

Top: A meltwater stream makes its way through icebergs frozen into the sea ice at Otto Fiord near Ellesmere Island in mid-July.
Top: A meltwater stream makes its way through icebergs frozen into the sea ice at Otto Fiord near Ellesmere Island in mid-July. Experts are predicting that summer sea ice could disappear from the Arctic Ocean in as few as 30 years.
Bottom: An iceberg in the Arctic waters off the coast of Ellesmere Island near Eureka. Icebergs are extremely dangerous to examine first-hand because they are constantly shifting and flipping. The brilliant white ice on the top of this berg is cleaner than the surface of the surrounding ice because it used to be underwater.
Shrinking ice caps, melting permafrost, increasing oil and gas exploration and uncertain ownership of undersea resources are among the factors at play at the top of the globe shared by Canada, the United States, Russia, Denmark and Norway. Recent estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey claim the region holds more than 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas reserves and 13 percent, or 90 billion barrels, of untapped oil. Polar countries are scrambling to map the extent of their continental shelves in hopes of securing rights to fossil fuels in the seabed. In 2007, Russia became the first nation to claim ownership and plant its flag on the North Pole’s ocean floor. Inuit and other aboriginal people are witnessing dramatic changes to their traditional homelands and hunting grounds. Canada’s disputed and once-impenetrable Northwest Passage is now virtually ice-free during the summer, providing a 20 percent shorter shipping route between Europe and Asia compared to the Panama Canal.

All of this has led to a resurgence of interest in the Arctic, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the height of the Cold War.

“We thought that after the Cold War the Arctic was finished and there was no reason to come back to it, but we have had to re-write the book on that,” says Rob Huebert, a professor in the U of C’s Department of Political Science and one of the world’s leading experts on military strategy and national sovereignty in the Arctic. “We’ve got a Rubik’s cube of geopolitical forces that, by themselves, would be powerful enough to cause us to rethink our policies around the Arctic ” Huebert says. “You start combining them all together and it’s like a movie in action before your eyes and you don’t have any idea what the ending will be.”

In Canada, this has led to the federal government making the Arctic a priority for increased military and research spending. It was recently announced that three Nunavut communities are being considered to host a new world-class research station the government plans to build in the High Arctic. A $2-million feasibility study is being conducted over the next year to choose a site in Pond Inlet, Cambridge Bay or Resolute Bay. Ottawa has also included $85 million in the latest federal budget to update existing Arctic science and technology facilities over the next two years.

The University of Calgary intends to play a pivotal role in the rush of Arctic activity by capitalizing on its world-class strengths in the areas of energy and environmental research as well as its expertise in Arctic policy and sovereignty. Through the auspices of the Arctic Institute of North America, the Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy, the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies and the Office of the Vice-President (Research), Beauchamp and Huebert are leading the development of an Arctic research strategy for the university that will fit into Canada’s larger plan for the North.

Benoit Beauchamp (left), executive director of the Arctic Institute of North America, and Rob Huebert, associate director of the
Benoit Beauchamp (left), executive director of the Arctic Institute of North America, and Rob Huebert, associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, at Eureka on Ellesmere Island. They witnessed manoeuvres of the Canadian Rangers reserve members as part of Operation Nunalivut 2008, a Canadian military “boots-on-the-ground” operation staged to assert Canadian sovereignty in the High Arctic.
“I see the U of C as one of the natural leaders in Canada, and in fact the entire circumpolar world, when it comes to understanding the nexus of energy development, policy and security in the North,” says Huebert. “We have some of the best minds in their respective fields when it comes to studying geology, land ice and sea ice, public policy, sovereignty and security, and energy in this region.”

Meanwhile, the Arctic Institute will receive $3.4 million in federal Arctic Research Infrastructure funds to refurbish its research station at Kluane Lake in the Yukon and Beauchamp is part of the international panel of scientists guiding the new national Arctic research program.

“It’s one thing to build a big research station, but the government also realizes that it needs to be hooked into a healthy network of smaller stations across the North,” Beauchamp says. “I expect our facility at Kluane Lake will fill an important role. It is perfectly situated in the western Arctic next to the St. Elias mountains, which represent a huge diversity of ecosystems from the highest ice fields in Canada to low-elevation lakes and forest,” he says. “It is already very active with a wide range of multidisciplinary investigators from around the world and is known as a great place for climate change and environmental research.”

A tower of limestone juts over a valley near Hare Fiord on northwest Ellesmere Island.

A tower of limestone juts over a valley near Hare Fiord on northwest Ellesmere Island.
The Canadian Arctic alone holds a veritable bounty of fascinating and important questions for researchers from astronomy to zoology. Outstanding topics of concern include the nature and location of the vast energy reserves in the North; engineering, regulatory and economic issues associated with oil and gas development; understanding and predicting the range of climate change across the Arctic and its potential impacts on communities and the fragile ecology of the North; and planning for the social, political and legal ramifications of a booming, resource-based economy in the land of the midnight sun.

“There has been a lot of lip service paid to these issues over the years but not a lot of actual, sustained research,” Beauchamp says. “The key for U of C will be to create our own niche and owning the research areas where we already have expertise.”

The final step will be ensuring that the results of such research is translated into workable plans for developing Canada’s North in a responsible and sustainable manner.

“Gathering knowledge and understanding is valuable but there is not much point to it unless it is used to help people understand what is going on around them and to guide them,” Huebert says. “As a country, we are still at the point where we need to articulate a clear vision for what we want to see in the North. There’s a lot of talk about needing to protect our sovereignty in the Arctic but that raises the questions: What do we want the Arctic for and what are we willing to pay in order to maintain its control?”