(Anna Mehler Paperny/Globe and Mail, 24 March 2011) -- A series of holes hand-drilled into Arctic ice in the middle of a snowstorm at -40 degrees could shed light on everything from northern resource extraction to polar sovereignty to determining weather patterns in Western Europe and the South Pacific. At least, that’s what a team of daredevil researchers is hoping. The group has set up camp 25 kilometres offshore from a landing strip in Isachsen, Nunavut, to spend weeks studying the effects of ice melt on global ocean currents during the Arctic's most punishing season. Their base consists of steel-and-nylon tents designed to maintain enough heat to keep equipment and humans warm amid a punishing spring squall and whiteout conditions.
“Because we’re there, intimately, on the sea ice, in spots that otherwise can’t be accessed, we’re potentially getting data that isn’t possible by any other means,” says Adrian McCallum, an Australian finishing his PhD at Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Centre. Over the next several weeks, he’ll sledge from the North Pole to Greenland, drilling holes through sea ice as he goes, measuring everything from ice thickness to the temperature and salinity of the water. This expedition, now in its third year, is funded by Catlin Group – an insurer and underwriter that won’t disclose what it pays for the Arctic odyssey except to say the price tag runs well over $1-million (U.S.).
It’s a smart PR move: It puts the company’s name on a high-profile scientific expedition with global appeal. But when you’re in the risk-management business, Catlin Group spokesman Jim Burcke says, it pays to know how a melting pole is going to change shipping, weather and ocean currents globally. The work the company is backing is pricey and perilous, but researchers argue it is becoming increasingly imperative for anyone with a stake in what goes on up north. That would include Canada. But despite recent increases in funding, Canada still lags its polar neighbours when it comes to scientific research.
“In some ways we’re doing, probably, better than we have been,” says Greg Poelzer, director of the University of Saskatchewan’s International Centre for Northern Governance and Development. “But we aren’t where we need to be.” In 2005, Canada’s funding for Arctic research was about one-tenth that of the United States, which clocked in at $300-million for 2005-2006, says Louis Fortier, scientific director of Laval-based ArcticNet. It has since increased, but he still figures that Canadian researchers publish just over half the number of Arctic-related papers as their U.S. counterparts. Meanwhile, corporate interest in the North is ramping up – so much so that researchers have trouble getting increasingly sought-after spots on icebreakers. It’s not just fellow polar countries, either: Canadian researchers are vying with scientists from China and South Korea, who realize how important Arctic knowledge is to their own economic and strategic interests.
Posted by Amanda Graham – 31 March 2011; 3:10:19 PM – Permalink
Tagged: Arctic, News, Research