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It Rained in Iqaluit ...


"It rained in Iqaluit last Monday": thus did, I recently begin my graduate course at Queen's University on "Northern and Arctic Policy Issues," much to the surprise of some students. This one sentence may seem banal, but it has extraordinary environmental, social, cultural, economic, political, and geopolitical implications. Why? Because the Monday in question was January 3, 2011. The weather story made the CBC Radio national news the next day.

Disappearing Cold

Nowhere in the world is the impact of climate change and global warming so evident and rapid as in the polar regions, particularly the Arctic. What's up?

[] Average air and sea temperatures are rising. Sea ice is melting and retreating, and multi-year ice is disappearing at faster rates than expected even a few years ago. The Arctic Ocean cover in September 2007 was over 2.5 million square kilometres less than the average from 1979-2000, and the pattern has continued in recent years. Previously ice-covered areas are becoming navigable, and for longer periods of time.

[] Permafrost is melting and releasing massive amounts of methane (a greenhouse gas much more potent than CO2) into the atmosphere, and destabilizing infrastructure.

[] The migration patterns of marine and terrestrial species are changing, and the habitats of major mammals such as the iconic polar bear are under threat.

[] Increased storm surges and waves, now unimpeded by land-fast ice, are eroding the shoreline as never before.


And there is much more ...

As a result, whole communities are seeing their way of life change dramatically as sea ice becomes more dangerous--and often disappears. Accidents are on the rise. It is now more challenging to access traditional hunting areas, such as the floe edge. The presence of major marine mammals on which Arctic communities rely is becoming less predictable. And it has been observed that caribou herds are migrating at different times and by different routes, and their foraging patterns are often disrupted by freak weather. The impact of coastal erosion on communities is significant--the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula, for example, is retreating by approximately one metre per year, and whole communities in Alaska have had to be relocated because of the receding shoreline. The opening up of marine waterways raises the spectre of increased marine traffic in highly sensitive and vulnerable environments.


And the list goes on. What is happening? Are the globe's air conditioners turning themselves off? If so, the situation is alarming and the implications profound.

Battling Myths

INTEREST in the Arctic is heating up because, simply put, the Arctic is heating up. This may sound simplistic, but it is fundamentally important. The whole circum-Arctic region is now more accessible than ever before in human history, and this has a consumption-driven world hankering after what is thought to be the new El Dorado--an untrammelled storehouse of resource riches.

However, this unprecedented level of interest in the Arctic is only exceeded, in my view, by the level of ignorance of the region and its peoples. Myths and misinformation abound. Which is why, in part, the most recent Canada-United Kingdom Colloquium--an annual event since 1971, and organized on the Canadian side by the School of Policy Studies at Queen's University since 1996--was held in Iqaluit in the first week of November 2010 ( The Colloquium is supported both by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (Canada) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (UK).

There is still an unshakeable view among many, particularly in a Europe haunted by the ghosts of exploration and loss, that the Arctic is somehow terra incognita or terra nullius--an empty place where no one lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Inuit, the previous Dorset peoples, the Arctic Athabaskan and other aboriginal groupings have inhabited the region successfully for millennia--there is absolutely no issue of "use it or lose it." Furthermore, over the last thirty years aboriginal land claims in Canada's North have been settled covering an area as large as Western Europe. These agreements--which have constitutional protection--clarify title, land and resource ownership, and governance (including the co-management of resources). Indeed, the Territory of Nunavut was created in 1999 as a result of the 1993 Inuit of the Eastern Arctic land claim. Terra nullius?

Another myth, which has global and geopolitical implications, is that the natural resources of the Arctic are simply there for the taking, and that because of greater access some sort of modern "gold rush" is in the offing. Not necessarily so. There are significant known deposits of various minerals and hydrocarbons--for example the United States Geological Survey (2009) estimates that perhaps 30 percent of the world's hydrocarbons occur in the Arctic. However, the most accessible mineral/hydrocarbon deposits occur on land. The remainder are primarily within the 200 nautical mile marine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the five Arctic coastal states (Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway, Greenland/Denmark)--or they are on/under the seabed beyond 200 nautical miles within the potential legal jurisdiction of these states (Article 76 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). If there is to be a resource rush, it will not be like the wild days of the Klondike, because any such activity can only take place with the approval and support of national legislatures, regulatory bodies, and indigenous peoples. One can still hope for enlightened stewardship.

One final myth (of many) is the anxiously anticipated, and presumed imminent, easy transit across the holy grail of so many explorers and adventurers--the fabled Northwest Passage. We should instead say "Northwest Passages," because there are several potential routes from the Atlantic to the Pacific through Canadian waters. While increased "destination" traffic to a particular point/community and back is occurring as ice conditions change, "transit" of the NWP from one end to the other without stopping is a wholly different matter. To begin with, only ten percent of the waters are charted to modern standards, and navigational aids are minimal. The masters of the three vessels that ran aground in Canadian Arctic waters in the 2010 season have personal knowledge of what this means. Increased transit will not be easy in the near future unless vessels have the capacity to operate in ice of various kinds.

Furthermore, while the summer sea ice extent has been reduced, there is still a lot of ice, and it is both more complex ("rubble fields") and highly mobile--depending on the wind conditions. Insurance companies would surely want to know that the vessels they insure are ice-capable and--a critically important fact that is often forgotten--that they comply with the stringent provisions of the Canadian Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act. This legislation is perhaps the most comprehensive example of marine environmental legislation anywhere in the world. The act was promulgated within one year of the (in)famous attempt by the American supertanker SS Manhattan to transit the Northwest Passage in 1969--which she could only do with the help of the Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers Sir John A. Macdonald and Louis S. St-Laurent (on her maiden voyage). This raises the whole issue of the legal status of the NWPs and various arguments that have been made about "sovereignty" (but therein lies another story for another time). Suffice it to say that the NWPs are Canadian. In any event, it is most likely that the "northern route" around the Russian Arctic will open up first.

Investing in Understanding

So, strikingly significant things are happening in the Arctic, and there are clearly many myths to be busted. However, it remains true that the complex functioning of the region and how it affects, and is affected by, global systems are still poorly understood. The solution, of course, is to develop a knowledge base from traditional sources and science-based research that promotes comprehension, informs policy choices, and ensures the sustainability of communities. A tall order indeed, but on this score the news in Canada is both positive and impressive.


In recent years successive Canadian governments have turned their attention to the often-ignored North--a full 40 percent of Canada's land mass. This can be either positive or negative, depending on who you are, where you live, and how you are impacted by this attention. Most recently, emphasis has been placed on military and other "physical" expressions of presence in the Canadian North. However, despite significant recent investments, there remain many unresolved issues of infrastructure provision (housing, medical facilities, etc.), and the challenge of coping with significant social and health issues remains daunting. In this context, some of the more successful investments have been in the generation of knowledge and the deepening of our understanding of the Arctic reality.

Merit-based Arctic research has received significant support over the last decade. The Granting Councils (NSERC, SSHRCC, CIHR) and a number of funding organizations and programs--particularly the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Canadian Networks of Centres of Excellence and the Canada Research Chairs programs--have made possible the revival of Canadian research capacity. There are too many initiatives to recount here. One key example, ArcticNet (, has created significant new networks of Arctic and northern researchers and is generating extensive results in many academic fields in the physical, biological, social, and health sciences.

Investment in Canada's research icebreaker CCGS Amundsen has made possible year-long (over-wintering) and community-based research programs which were impossible before. The federal "stimulus" budget of 2008 allocated $87 million to the Arctic Research Infrastructure Fund to refurbish existing and establish new research facilities across the Canadian North. In addition, a number of federal departments and agencies have reinvested in efforts ranging from geomapping of unexplored areas to the stabilization of the venerable Polar Continental Shelf Project, which provides logistical support for northern research. A new High Arctic Research Station is planned for Cambridge Bay (Nunavut) and, recently, the Canadian Polar Commission has been re-invigorated.

International Polar Year 2007-2008

The jewel m the crown has been Canada s role and investment in the recent (2007-2008) International Polar Year (IPY). A total of $156 million was allocated over a six-year period for polar research of all kinds--in addition to existing research support. This was part of an extraordinary effort by over sixty nations to focus upon what is happening in the two polar regions.

Where did IPY come from? The history is complex. In a nutshell, the first IPY was held in 1882-1883 with the intention of coordinating observations of Arctic phenomena. It was inspired by an Austro-Hungarian naval officer named Karl Weyprecht but is perhaps best known for the tragic and infamous Greely expedition to Lady Franklin Bay--as a result of many miscalculations, 20 Americans died from starvation.

The second IPY took place in 1932-1933 and, as could be expected, focused on concerns of the day, including the need for better weather forecasting and better navigation in the Northern Hemisphere--particularly given the new phenomenon of airplanes.

The third IPY in 1957-1958 was an International Geophysical Year. It was notable for its attention to earth sciences (plate tectonics), its progress in producing the science to support "rockets, radar, and computers," and its inclusion of the Antarctic (the "ozone hole").

The most recent IPY focused on both polar regions and was sponsored internationally by the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). It will likely be remembered for how it dealt with the most important current issue--understanding climate change and its impacts.

What was different this time around? First of all, biological sciences were included in the international research program. And, more important, a focus on the "human dimension" was included for the first time--at Canada's insistence. This was a major step forward--is this the beginning of the disappearance of perceptions about terra nullius?



The Canadian IPY 2007 program ( had two key themes: "Climate Change: Impacts and Adaptation" and the "Health and Well-Being of Northern Communities." Significant effort was put into ensuring the inclusion of traditional and local knowledge, involving northern communities and institutions, and ensuring that funding could flow to a broad spectrum of initiatives at the college and community level as well as to university-based researchers in the south. The numbers are impressive--over 1,750 researchers were involved in 52 projects in over 100 locations.

It takes a while to digest the amount of knowledge generated in such an exercise, but it is beginning to happen. Under the auspices of ICSU and WMO, emerging results were presented at major international conferences in St Petersburg (2009) and Oslo (2010). More than 2,200 people from over 60 countries attended the Oslo conference.

The third and final international conference will be held April 22-27, 2012, in Montreal (www.ipy.montreal2012), at which time it is expected that progress will have been made in answering the question "so what?" Appropriately, the theme of the Montreal conference is From Knowledge to Action.

Stay tuned--maybe by then we will be closer to understanding why "It rained in Iqaluit last Monday," and the ramifications ..

PETER HARRISON is Stauffer-Dunning Chair and Director at the School of Policy Studies, Queen's University. He is a former deputy minister of Natural Resources Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada. He is the Chair of the International Polar Year Conference to be held in Montreal in April 2012.
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Author:Harrison, Peter (Canadian educator)
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Article Type:Viewpoint essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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