'That's really what we're here to do, to control the chaos'

Polar Shelf pair keeps the trained researchers running on time


RESOLUTE BAY – Scientists in about 30 research camps fanned out across the High Arctic wake up to the same gruff voice each morning.

It's either Barry Hough or Mike Kristjanson, the two logistics managers at the Polar Continental Shelf Project in Resolute Bay, as they conduct their daily 7 a.m. check-in over the high-frequency radio.

Each camp waits for their name to be called, then answers a series of questions: Everything fine? What's the weather like? Had any visitors? A similar check-in happens each evening.

It's Hough's and Kristjanson's job to keep everyone safe, and the planes running on time, during their March to September season.

Their planning begins in mid-November, when researchers submit their plans for the coming summer. Life would be easy if such a plan played out without complications, but research in the High Arctic is never that simple. Inevitably, something goes wrong.

Sometimes cargo hasn't arrived. Other times, it's the researchers who are missing. And despite the best planning, thick fog might roll in without notice, preventing any plane from taking off or landing and holding up the entire season's carefully prepared schedule.

"That's really what we're here to do, to control the chaos, to make sure things run smoothly," Kristjanson says.

To prepare, each potential problem has three or four solutions planned out in advance.

When a helicopter crashed near a Geological Survey of Canada camp on Southampton Island on July 12, leaving a dozen geologists stranded on the land, Kristjanson spent long hours on the radio, coordinating several rescue teams and reassuring those on the ground.

In the end, the pilot and cook aboard the helicopter were medevaced to Winnipeg, where they spent the night in hospital and were released the next day, while one group of researchers spent the night on the land and returned to camp the next day.

"It worked out a lot better than it may have," says Kristjanson, who worked until 3 a.m. the evening of the accident, and was up about three hours later.

"Knowing people are safe and we're doing our job at the end of the day is quite rewarding."

In case of such accidents, both men sleep with a satellite phone and high-frequency radio nearby.

Each year, about 130 projects are supported by Polar Shelf, at a cost of about $6.3 million. The majority of that money goes towards sending researchers out by Twin Otter and helicopter.

Many scientists are quick to point out how their work would be impossibly expensive without the support they receive from Polar Shelf. It's also unlikely the Quttinirpaaq national park on Ellesmere Island would exist if not for the organization, which is a branch of Natural Resources Canada.

The Polar Shelf base also serves as a clearinghouse of gear for researchers. The big blue garage that Hough and Kristjanson work from stores snowmobiles, ATVs, tents, sleeping bags, rifles, gas-powered drills, portable toilets, and pretty much anything else important for a scientist to get by on the land.

Across the road, another blue building offers room and board for visiting scientists. A sign in the entrance of the living area sets the tone: "Boots, shoes off here, this means you!"

Polar Shelf was created by the federal government nearly 50 years ago, in May 1958, at a time when Canada realized it knew little about its northern regions compared to other countries, and feared this would weaken our claim to Arctic sovereignty.

The Resolute base opened in 1960, and another base opened in the western Arctic, first at Mould Bay on Prince Patrick Island in 1964, then in Tuktoyaktuk in 1968.

Interest in polar research waned during the mid-1990s. As a result, the Polar Shelf base in Tuktoyaktuk closed, the open season for the Resolute base was shortened, and Hough, who has worked for the organization since 1972, took early retirement.

Now there's a new surge of interest in polar research, sparked by International Polar Year and growing concerns over climate change. To prepare for a growing number of northern researchers, Polar Shelf advertised Hough's old job. He applied, and won it back.

But Hough points to Kristjanson, who has worked at Polar Shelf for three years, as "the future of this organization. I'm its past."

Marty Bergmann, the new acting director of Polar Shelf, says growing interest in Arctic science helps strengthen Canada's global image, and its claims to Arctic sovereignty.

"This is what Canada really represents, not just to those of us who who are here, but for the rest of the planet," he says. "They think of us as a polar nation. We need to be able to do world-class polar science."

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