'This is the first time we feel there is a political will.'

Polar birthday bash may signal renewed arctic interest


The Polar Continental Shelf Project plans to celebrate its 50th birthday with a July 12 science open house in Resolute Bay.

The open house includes an invitation to Resolute Bay residents and visitors to tour the Polar Shelf's 80-bed residence, where scientists stay en route to and from High Arctic.

Scientists will also be on hand to speak about their research.

And, depending on ice conditions, tours are also planned for the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent, the largest icebreaker in the Canadian fleet.

The Polar Shelf's birthday bash may signal a recovery from the neglect and cutbacks dealt to Arctic science support during recent years.

Polar Shelf manager Mike Kristjanson said he's worried about how rising fuel costs will affect the Polar Shelf's operations, which include chartering aircraft to bring research teams in and out of field camps, if its budget stays the same.

The Polar Shelf, which gets its money from the federal government, was founded in 1958 to provide Canadian and international scientists with logistical support needed for research in the High Arctic.

But the agency's past 30 years have been lean. During the 1980s, its budget was slashed by half. Then, the federal government's 1993 program review delivered more cuts.

By 1999, the Polar Shelf had to make do with about $1 million and whatever else it could scrounge up through outside contracts.

The resulting cutbacks to services affected Canadian researchers who say they fell behind their colleagues from the United States, which now backs many major research projects in the Canadian Arctic.

However, the Polar Shelf's fortunes may improve.

Prime Minister Steven Harper promised to establish "a world-class research station to be located in the Arctic itself" in his reply to the throne speech last October.

And recently, the Canadian Polar Commission, which advises Ottawa on polar research, called for more and better-equipped research stations across the North. The commission also wants to see improvements to Canada's research icebreakers, slamming them as "inadequate and aging."

"World-class northern science needs proper facilities in the right places – good accommodations and communications, safe access, basic laboratories, and adequate storage," the commission's chair, Dr. Tom Hutchinson, said in a news release following the June 26 launch of its study, "Beacons."

When the icebreakers CCGS Louis St. Laurent and the CCGS Amundsen are taken out of service, the commission wants them to be replaced.

The commission also wants guaranteed year-round funding for 25 years to support the new northern science stations and icebreaker fleet.

As a plus, this network would also provide surveillance and monitoring to back up Canada's sovereignty claims in the North.

The stations' community research facilities could also provide educational opportunities to local residents through their links to colleges and universities.

And special facilities could be established to address needs in the health and social sciences, such as communications networks for tele-health, video-conferencing and e-library facilities.

To manage this network, the Polar Commission recommends the creation of a new arm's-length body with representatives from the federal and territorial governments, northern provinces, northern community and aboriginal organizations, research institutions and private sector groups.

No price tag was attached to these recommendations, but the Polar Commission says Ottawa may be ready to invest more money in Arctic science and support services, thanks to renewed attention to sovereignty in the North, the increased demand for natural resources and International Polar Year.

"This is the first time we feel there is a political will," said Jean-Marie Beaulieu, science manager for the Canadian Polar Commission. "We feel there is an alignment of some stars."

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