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Canada’s New Arctic Research Facility Prepares to Open

The Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay will serve as a base for scientists studying everything from the region’s changing cryosphere to how to best deploy renewable energy projects in northern communities.

Written by Brian Owens Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
The Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, officially opens its doors in October. Photo courtesy Polar Knowledge Canada

This October, as winter begins to draw near in the Canadian Arctic, a new research facility will finally open its doors.

The Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, has been 10 years in the making. First announced by the government in 2007, construction on the C$200 million (US$165 million) facility began in 2014 and should be completed by next year – but the official grand opening is set for October, to coincide with Canada’s 150th birthday year.

The new lab will fill a gap in Canada’s broad distribution of research infrastructure across the North, said David Scott, chief executive of Polar Knowledge Canada, the government agency set up to run the facility and oversee all of the country’s Arctic research. Federal facilities range from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre in Manitoba to remote cabins and camps and automated weather stations. “But there was a large gap in research infrastructure in western Nunavut,” he said, “so the decision was made to locate CHARS in Cambridge Bay.”

Scientists at CHARS will conduct research in four main areas, all aimed at understanding the changes happening in the Arctic: The use of renewable and alternative energy in Arctic communities, developing environmental baselines, understanding how sea ice (the cryosphere) is changing, and ways to improve housing and community buildings.

Researchers aren’t waiting for the building to open, though. Scientific work supported by CHARS has been going on at the site using temporary facilities, and elsewhere in the Arctic, for four years. “We realized there was nothing to stop us from funding science across the North in parallel with the construction project,” said Scott.

C. J. Mundy, an Arctic researcher at the University of Manitoba, said CHARS is already helping to reinvigorate Canadian polar science. He had previously done much of his work farther north, at the Polar Continental Shelf Program’s facility in Resolute Bay, but the cost of working in such a remote place has been rising. “That kind of location is becoming more difficult to get to,” he said.

In contrast, Cambridge Bay is becoming a bit of a hub for research, with the creation of CHARS and access to the Arctic Research Foundation’s research ship the Martin Bergmann, which is based there. “It’s a location where you can do High Arctic research at a more affordable cost,” said Mundy. He has been working in Cambridge Bay since 2013, supported by CHARS, studying the interactions between ice and algae. Next year he will start a project at the facility funded by Polar Knowledge Canada on the impact of wastewater on Arctic seas.

Mundy is looking forward to the new lab space that will be available once CHARS opens, perhaps saving him from having to transport his samples back to Winnipeg for analysis. “It’s always a hassle trying to get analysis done back home,” he said.

The facilities will include an animal necropsy lab, allowing researchers to dissect and analyze animal corpses ranging in size from a bird to a muskox, a cold lab that can be kept at -10C (14F) to study snow and ice, a clean room and a genomics lab. But a large portion of the building is also given over to public spaces. There is a large multi-use room that can be used for community events as well as a teaching laboratory. And there is a “knowledge-sharing center” where the local community and the scientists can meet and share scientific and traditional knowledge.

These close ties to the local community are an important part of the research plan at CHARS, said Scott. “When you understand the needs of the community, it helps you identify better research questions to create knowledge relevant to solving local problems,” he said. “When you listen to locals, and understand their concerns, you find that they are often in areas that southern scientists are also interested in.”

And the local Inuit have a wealth of knowledge that can be invaluable to the scientists’ work. “Some of them are walking around with a lot of environmental history in their heads,” he said. “A lot of knowledge that is not available anywhere else.”

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