An army larger than the Canadian Forces is now researching climate change.
On Thursday, a mobilization of more than 70,000 scientists from 63 countries backed by unprecedented political interest to tackle climate change was launched from Whitehorse, Ottawa and Paris, France.
As the most northerly site for the kickoff of the fourth International Polar Year, the Whitehorse’s Westmark Hotel played host to a roomful of high-powered politicians, scientists and other climate-change players.
Mingling among them was Ian Church, the Canadian chair of the polar year and senior the Yukon government’s science adviser.
Church recalls the previous International Polar Year for a vision of the potential for changes this polar year could create.
“It was the first time people actually measured and looked at the depths of the oceans,” said Church of the last IPY, which focused on geology between 1957 and 1958.
“Most people know about plate tectonics: that concept came up 10 years later — it was a direct result of the science and measurements that were done through the IPY,” he said.
The last polar year pushed governments to launch the first weather satellites into space, and saw the first measurements of snow and ice depths in Canada’s Arctic and the first continent — Antarctica — ever to be relinquished from colonial hands, he said.
The message: imagine what this polar year could do for climate change.
“People are asking more questions, and they’re realizing that those questions can only be answered by better science,” said Church. “So we’re getting a lot more support. I suspect we’ll get a lot more support.
“We’re coming together and finding a consensus. And that consensus, that synergy, can really influence how people think.”
Started in 1882, the International Polar Year now takes place every 50 years and focuses on both the northern and southern polar regions of Earth.
This year marks the fourth polar year.
It couldn’t have arrived at a better time.
The environment is now the most pressing issue for a majority of Canadians and that trend is extending throughout the developed world.
Fittingly, the polar year is focused on understanding how climate change is impacting the polar regions and its people, said Church.
“What’s interesting this time around is that climate change has really permeated almost all the subject matter that’s being looked at,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about human science in terms of health issues, community resilience, ocean dynamics, ocean atmospheric interactions — climate change has become the major issues this one is going to be focused on.”
The polar year will actually span two years of research.
Under that umbrella are 160 major science programs, some containing more than 100 projects each, all featuring international science co-operation, said Church.
The overall budget is about $411 million, with a $150-million injection announced by Ottawa on Thursday.
Countries in temperate climes, such as Egypt, are jumping on board to be involved in such a large climate change study.
“People say, ‘Why Egypt?’” said Church. “Well, they have delta; they’re threatened by drought.
“Climate change is not just something that happens in the North. It is global.”
On some of the projects, scientists will fan out to northern communities to study the potential human impacts of climate change.
Some will visit Yukon communities.
Council of Yukon First Nations grand chief Andy Carvill welcomed the visitors to aboriginal lands and urged scientists to remember that traditional knowledge from community elders must be considered in the research.
“Climate change cannot be defined by two years of research,” said Carvill. “It’s something we deal with in our day to day lives.”
Traditional medicines and many sources of food, like berries and caribou, are being affected by the changing climate in the Yukon, he said.
Vuntut Gwitchin chief Joe Linklater and CYFN’s director of circumpolar relations Cindy Dickson represented Yukon First Nations at the launch in Paris.
The data gathered through IPY research in the Yukon will assist with research to be carried out at the proposed cold climate research cluster at Yukon College, said Economic Development Minister Jim Kenyon.
The polar year injects the North in people’s imaginations and signals a growing base of northern scientists, he said.
Kenyon represented the government on behalf of Premier Dennis Fentie.
Fentie was in Calgary addressing the Arctic Gas Symposium and speaking with Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, said cabinet spokesman Albert Petersen on Friday.
Church agreed with Kenyon’s view of the future.
“The legacy we want to see from this IPY is the next IPY 50 years from now, young northern scientists will actually lead the entire thing,” he said.
Dozens of dignitaries were at the event, including Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, Assembly of First Nations regional chief Rick O’Brien, several Yukon First Nation chiefs, Vuntut Gwitchin MLA Darius Elias, and federal representatives.