The land of the ice and snow—for now

How the Arctic is changing, and what needs to be done to stop it

When most Canadians think of the Arctic, they picture vast tundra abundant with snow and ice and polar bears—an iconic region of Canada that helps define us as the Great White North. But, with the alarming acceleration of the effects of climate change on the Arctic, this risks becoming a romantic myth.

Michael Byers, a SSHRC-funded researcher, is working hard to make decision-makers and policy-drafters aware of the realities of the Arctic today, while there is still time to put the brakes on its destruction.

“It is difficult for people living in southern Canada to understand the scale of the damage and disruption being caused in the Arctic as a result of global climate change," he says. "Animals that provide food and cultural meaning are becoming increasingly scarce. Inuit, who until recently could rely on the sea-ice as a highway and hunting ground, are increasingly trapped in their communities as ice conditions change. Climate change is actually killing people in the Arctic, from Inuit hunters whose snowmobiles crash through increasingly unpredictable sea-ice, to young men and women pushed into despondency and despair as connections to traditional culture and identity are broken,” says Byers.

“The predominant public policy challenge in the Arctic is stopping global climate change. We need to realize that decisions made in southern Canada, for instance, to support expanded production in the Alberta oil sands, have life and death consequences in northern Canada.”

Byers is a professor in the Department of Political Science at The University of British Columbia. He is also Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law, and a recent recipient of a Knowledge Synthesis Grant (KSG) from SSHRC. His pan-Canadian perspective and research is highlighted in his newly released KSG Report entitled: Arctic Oil—Canada’s Chance to Get it Right.

In it, Byers argues that the current lull in oil and gas activity in the region, due to low world oil prices, is the perfect time for the Canadian government to set the legislative and regulatory frameworks to protect Canada’s interests when resource extraction inevitably starts up in the future.

A well-respected expert on the Arctic, Byers does have the ear of Canadian legislators. He has appeared before many parliamentary committees to inform members of parliament and senators about his research into the subject, and his valued opinion has also been sought for countless op-eds and newspaper articles. While he says this kind of knowledge mobilization is effective, “sometimes, one has to think outside the box.”

“In July 2016, I wanted to convey my research and analysis of a new issue—Russia’s use of Canada’s Arctic waters as a disposal site for rocket-stages fuelled by highly toxic hydrazine—to federal officials, foreign diplomats, Indigenous organizations and environmental groups. I rented a seminar room at the University of Ottawa and invited them all to an off-the-record ‘briefing session.’ And they came!” recalls Byers.

So, creative thinking is the key to getting the kind of innovative solutions that the fight against climate change needs at this stage.

“Climate change is already destroying the Arctic environment and having severe impacts around the world. Turning this process around could be the greatest challenge that humanity will ever face,” warns Byers.

“My fear is that political leaders do not understand the scale and urgency of the action needed. As for optimism, the Inuit are among the most resilient and adaptable people on Earth. They need our help, but not through any fault of their own.”

How else is SSHRC supporting research into new ways and new models of learning? Take a look at how we are Imagining Canada’s Future.