High Arctic research station offers students glimpse of a life in science

Tours for high school students part of new community outreach efforts for Cambridge Bay facility

The Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay welcomed its first-ever class of high school students for a tour on Feb. 24. Researchers and staff at the station say they want to engage youth and locals in their research. (Photo by Madalyn Howitt)

By Madalyn Howitt

The Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay is opening its doors to high school students for the first time since it opened nearly four years ago.

Drive to the edge of town in Cambridge Bay and you’ll find the sleek, state of the art centre for polar research and environmental studies overlooking the hamlet of about 2,000 people.

“This building and the facilities we have here are remarkable, not just for Canada but for the world,” said David Hik, chief scientist at the $188.6-million facility.

Onsite accommodations can host up to 50 visiting researchers at a time. They come from all over the country to study the effects of climate change on the Arctic, biodiversity of the region and issues like food resiliency.

Run by Polar Knowledge Canada, CHARS officially opened in 2019. But research visits to the facility largely came to a halt when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March 2020.

“COVID was hard,” said Hik.

Locals have also been affected by the lockdown. Ask people in town what it is exactly that researchers are doing up at the shiny bronze station and many shrug their shoulders.

That disconnect between what happens at CHARS and what the community understands about it is something Hik and Jeannie Ehaloak, director of strategic communication at Polar Knowledge Canada, hope to ease.

Chief scientist David Hik, left, at the Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay with Jeannie Ehaloak, director of strategic communication at Polar Knowledge Canada. (Photo by Madalyn Howitt)

Staff and researchers at CHARS are developing new ways to engage with Cambridge Bay and bring people up to speed on what’s happening inside its walls.

“People are tired of being researched. They want to be part of the research,” Ehaloak said.

“We’ve lived up here for thousands of years. We know the land, we know the animals, we know the harsh conditions, so my job as a director of communications is to make sure that people become a part of the research.”

Ehaloak, who was previously mayor of Cambridge Bay and an MLA, sees engaging youth as one of the best ways to bring people into CHARS.

Students from the local high school are starting to visit the station and learn about what happens there.

The centre welcomed its first students in February, the Grade 10 class from Kiilinik High School. Plans are in the works to host regular monthly visits for students. Ehaloak said the visits give them the opportunity to become involved and possibly pursue careers in science and engineering.

“There’s more to just working in the office. You could be a scientist, you could be a wildlife specialist, you could be doing research on the land you’ve grown up on all your life,” Ehaloak said.

So what’s going on at CHARS?

The quality of wild berries versus berries shipped to the local grocery stores is one of the areas of research at the Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay. (Photo by Madalyn Howitt)

Researchers at the facility study a variety of things from thickness of sea ice to the quality of blueberries sold in the local grocery stores versus what’s harvested from the land.

“You can sort of start to think about all the different issues that relate to food security and food sovereignty in the North,” Hik said.

“It isn’t just country foods. It’s the transportation network and the reliability of that transportation to bring nutritious foods and for the North, right? Can you get it here right onto the shelf in time?”

Currently, researchers are studying the effectiveness of electronic batteries in fat-wheeled bikes in cold Arctic weather, Hik said.

“Batteries don’t work very well in the cold,” he laughed.

In the spring, a team will study sea ice.

There are rooms at the facility with freezers to keep contents as cold as -80 C. They hold large animal carcasses that scientists and veterinarians study for potential diseases or examine digestive tracts and organs.

There are cabinets to store plant samples and insect specimens, a rock processing lab, wood shop, heavy machinery like forklifts, a maintenance shop, and diving equipment – affectionately nicknamed Divey McDiveface.

But CHARS wasn’t designed only for scientists, Hik said — many of the spaces can be adapted for different types of research, and many rooms are meant to be public spaces for meetings and conferences.

There’s space, for example, where youth from the community recently worked with journalists and researchers to record a podcast on the facility and Arctic climates.

Local youth can also take summer tour guide jobs, especially during the busy cruise ship season, Ehaloak said.

“Youth are so important to our communities. They’re our future leaders. They’re the ones that are going to be running this facility,” she said.

  • The Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay. (Photo by Madalyn Howitt)
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(7) Comments:

  1. Posted by I want a new job on

    I hope there are or will be training positions at CHars for local people. It is great to have students touring the place and hopefully it creates a interest into the field of research.

  2. Posted by Francis Bacon on

    “Youth are so important to our communities… They’re the ones that are going to be running this facility,” she said.

    If you get a PhD in Science perhaps.

    • Posted by CamBay Resident on

      There’s more career opportunties at CHARS then just being a scientist or researcher. There’s a Information Technology, Human Resource, Facilities Team, Communications, Field Ops, Finance and Laboratory divisions at CHARS. So many opportunities for Nunavutmiut/Canadians. You don’t have to be a scientist or technologist to work there.

      • Posted by Francis Bacon on

        CamBay Resident: I assume the people or persons running the facility should be real scientists. My comment has nothing to do with “working there.”

        Forever amazed: who said it was a problem? Did someone say that? Amazing…

      • Posted by Let’s Count People on

        No one said it was a problem, it is to be encouraged. However, fewer than 1% of the Canadian population holds this level of education, this is in all fields, not just ones that are relevant to CHARS.

        They are not equally distributed across the country; they are a higher percentage on the lower mainland in the golden horseshoe – quite naturally. Merely holding the PHD isn’t enough, when you consider the level of experience needed you can eliminate a lot of early-career PHDs, so your pool gets a lot smaller again.

        So, it is very likely that there is a very small pool of PHD qualified applicants with the necessary experience, if any, living in the Cambridge Bay region. This is not a slur or insult of any type – just a reflection of supply/demand and population distribution.

  3. Posted by Nice building on

    I was amazed to see a very long door that could be used for killer whales or any large animal. That was 3 years ago before the covid hit Nunavut, went there for a meeting with 9 other communities.

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