Alex Borisenko is supposed to be in Nunavut this month overseeing three research crews in different locations as part of a multiyear endeavour to monitor the region’s biodiversity.
Instead, the University of Guelph biologist and his team working on a project called Arctic Bioscan are spending their summer at home. They’ve been analyzing last year’s data and figuring out how to work around the loss of an entire field season due to travel and other restrictions related to COVID-19.
“It’s unfortunately been a setback,” Dr. Borisenko said. “At this point what we’re hoping to do is regroup.”
It’s the same story for scores of Canadian scientists and graduate students who typically fan out across the North during the summer months to gather data on everything from atmospheric chemistry to wildlife migrations. This year, the normal way of doing science in the Arctic has been completely upended and led to researchers relying more on Indigenous partners to continue their work.
For some, the outcome is not just a delay in research work but an irrecoverable loss of data. Many Arctic research projects are aimed at tracking the effects of climate change, which is warming the region at a faster rate than more temperate latitudes. Without consistent measurements made at the right times, such effects become harder to detect and understand.
“We’re talking about hundreds of person days of research that won’t be happening,” said David Scott, president and chief executive of Polar Knowledge Canada, the federal agency that runs the new Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.
CHARS had its official ribbon cutting last August, but has been in operation since 2018. Dr. Borisenko and his team were planning on using the station’s onsite dormitories, which can accommodate up to 50 visiting researchers and were fully booked this summer.
But the entire facility is currently unoccupied apart from a skeleton maintenance crew. The station’s permanent staff, including about 20 who conduct or support research activities, are on a work-from-home directive.
“It’s regrettable but necessary,” said Dr. Scott, citing the need to protect the adjacent community.
Nunavut has managed to remain COVID-19 free, though two presumptive cases were reported at a mine site on Baffin Island earlier last week. Together, Yukon and Northwest Territories have had only 18 reported cases and no deaths.
Faced with the risk of bringing the pandemic to the North, most of the organizations that support Arctic research have halted field work this summer. Those that can proceed are doing so at a reduced scale.
On Thursday, Canada’s research icebreaker, Amundsen, departed for a scaled-down three-month expedition to the Labrador Sea. However, the ship will not include any international researchers and it will not be stopping in any northern communities.
Last month, the Polar Continental Shelf Program informed scientists it was suspending the rest of its field activities for the season for the first time in 60 years. The program, administered by the federal Department of Natural Resources, typically provides logistical support and transportation to about 140 projects involving more than 1,000 researchers.
“Because our core business is moving lots of people around the Arctic to isolated communities, we were getting concerned,” said David Mate, who directs the program. “We didn’t want to introduce COVID-19 into those places.”
In some cases, local partners have stepped in to fill the gap. For example, community participation has allowed the continuation of a project to monitor the area around CHARS for lichen species that are early indicators of environmental change. In other cases, Dr. Scott said, instruments that gather data remotely for international collaborators have been checked or adjusted by community members when problems arise.
Christine Barnard, executive director of ArcticNet, a federally funded research network headquartered in Quebec City, said 96 per cent of the network’s participating scientists who responded to a survey said they were experiencing delays in their projects that would extend beyond 12 months. However, more than 60 per cent also said they had made arrangements with northerners to conduct some of their data gathering.
She said one positive outcome of the pandemic might be to accelerate a trend in Arctic science to more closely involve northern and Indigenous communities in research projects.
But there may be limits to how much science those northern communities can support. And establishing the relationships required to make projects run smoothly takes time, said Hannah James, who was meant to be working on community engagement with the Arctic Bioscan project this summer.
“There’s definitely interest and curiosity,” she said. “The challenging part is keeping the momentum going when you’re not able to be in the community.”
On the other hand, given that COVID-19 is likely to remain a factor in 2021, scientists have every reason to look for new ways and new partners to get their research done. Many said the end result may permanently alter the way Arctic research is conducted.
“We’re already considering if some changes will be permanent and if we will find better ways of doing things,” Dr. Scott said.
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