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White House aims for global co-ordination of Arctic research

Caribou migrate across the tundra in summer near Hudson Bay. Climate change is on course to utterly transform polar communities and the environments they depend upon, scientists say.

Bryan and Cherry Alexander/World Wildlife Federation

It's the part of the world that is changing most rapidly and one that scientists say we know far too little about.

Now science ministers and their designates from 25 governments around the world, including Canada, are flocking to a meeting in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday with the aim of improving Arctic research.

Billed as the first of its kind, the White House-led meeting is an effort by the Obama administration to raise the profile of Arctic science against the backdrop of rapid environmental change due to global warming.

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It is also marks an opportunity for the outgoing U.S. President to burnish his legacy in the North following a visit to Alaska last year and a joint statement issued with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in May in which the two leaders pledged to collaborate on Arctic leadership.

Canada will have a significant presence at the meeting with Canadian experts speaking on environmental monitoring and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education in the North. Federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan is scheduled to co-chair a panel on regional resilience, an increasingly pressing theme for Arctic nations now that climate change is on course to utterly transform polar communities and the environments they depend on over the course of this century.

"We have to listen to indigenous communities ... what are they seeing now?" said Ms. Duncan, who added that she plans to emphasize the inclusion of traditional knowledge along with science to inform policy decisions and the need to partner with indigenous communities "to use science as a tool to help improve the health and well-being of those living in the Arctic."

Organizations representing indigenous groups are included in the meeting, which brings together all eight nations that together make up the Arctic Council as well as the larger circle of nations with observer status on the council, among others.

The meeting comes at a critical juncture for Canadian Arctic research. In 2017, the federally funded research collaboration ArcticNet, which oversees science conducted on the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Amundsen, comes to the end of its second seven-year run and can no longer be renewed. At the same time, the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS), a new federal facility under construction at Cambridge Bay, is set to begin its operations in phases over the next two years.

"It's a particularly good time for Canada to look at what its research priorities are in the Arctic because there's an open door at the moment," said Clive Tesar, head of communications with the WWF Arctic program, based in Ottawa, and a co-author of a policy paper published last week in the journal Science that outlines a more strategic global approach to Arctic research.

"We can't leave it to national research agendas alone," he said. "We have to have a co-ordinated and coherent approach because without that we're really not going to get the sort of science that we need to inform the management and policy we need."

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A more integrated approach may also help with the ongoing dilemma that Canada faces in the Arctic arena, said David Scott, president of Polar Knowledge Canada, which oversees CHARS. While about one-quarter of the Arctic falls within Canada's borders, the country's domestic research capacity is not enough to cover all the science that should be done there.

Dr. Scott said that through partnerships and collaboration, Canada was in a good position "to leverage in additional qualified players from other countries to assist us with tackling what is really part of the global agenda."

Maribeth Murray, executive director of the Arctic Institute of North America, based at the University of Calgary, said Canada was also hampered by the lack of a common funding stream that would help Canadian scientists to develop a unified Arctic science strategy and work with international partners. "It's hard to co-ordinate when you don't have co-ordinated mechanisms."

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