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March 5, 2008

Arctic needs cash, not eco-tourism

There’s a distressing perversity in the latest boom in eco-tourism. People are flocking to see the world’s great natural areas “before they are gone,” including Australia’s the Great Barrier Reef, Antarctica’s penguins and Canada’s Arctic to see the iconic polar bear, which appears bound to join the list of species to die out in the next few decades.

The sentiment is certainly understandable, but it comes after years of indifference to warnings from scientists about the impending loss of great natural treasures.
How unfortunate people’s curiosity can be piqued by “doomsday tourism” while it’s much harder to rustle up concern for serious conservation effort to save some of these species.

With a touch of irony, it’s notable that those rushing to these mostly remote locations for a last viewing are also adding to the environmental problem as flights and cruises increase the burden of greenhouse gases causing the permanent damage.
Canada is especially guilty of that indifference when it comes to the Arctic, as Journal reporter Ed Struzik so thoroughly mapped out in his excellent series on Climate Change in the Arctic, researched during several months’ leave on an Atkinson fellowship.

For years, federal governments have inadequately funded research in the Arctic and disregarded warnings about the “sorry state of Arctic science,” as Struzik writes.
Other Arctic countries like Norway and Russia take their polar regions seriously, and have permanent well-funded research stations.

Even tiny Belgium is building a $9.3-million polar research station that will recycle its own waste and run on renewable energy. Meanwhile, in the Yukon, the Kluane research station is still equipped with outhouses for the brigade of international scientists who come there.

Stephen Harper's government has generously, if lately, funded the Polar Continental Shelf Project with $10 million.

That’s a start. But Canada’s premier scientific support facility in the high arctic is open for only half the year, has no labs, and has just eight people working for it.
By contrast, Norway’s Polar Institute employs 110, operates an ice-breaker ship and supports research from almost a dozen other countries.

“In terms of infrastructure and funding support, Canada is 50 years behind Norway,” says Andrew Derocher, now a University of Alberta professor who worked previously for the Norwegian Polar Institute.

This summer, the government suddenly cut back funding to the Canadian Wildlife Services, cancelling dozens of projects. The federal government several years ago promised 24 research chairs in polar science but only six were established due to lack of funding.

The result is that Canada has been left at a disadvantage in these crucial years. As global warming takes its toll in the Arctic, policy makers are looking for direction from scientists on how to adapt.

“But they can’t give them the answers unless they have the support they need to get them up here,” adds Derocher.

Canada is also ill-equipped to counter those Russian claims to sovereignty in parts of the Arctic. This country has yet to complete the task begun in the 1950s of mapping the continental shelf.

In the October throne speech, the Harper government promised a world-class research centre and eight patrol boats.

All that is welcome to assert our sovereignty.

But what’s also needed is funding to study climate change, adaptation measures for wildlife, and Inuit culture and economic activity, and above all to involve the Inuit in these efforts.

This is not a short-term issue. The effects of climate change will go on for years; new mining and oil and gas activities will last for decades. A long-term strategy is needed.

If Canadian scientists can find a way to conserve some remote population of polar bears, beluga whales and narwhal whales threatened by the loss of Arctic ice, that will be a major accomplishment.

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