Arctic Research and Opportunities for Transformation

How digital infrastructure could be leveraged to help us better understand the Arctic

Posted by Jim Ghadbane, President and CEO

I recently attended a Bacon and Eggheads* breakfast focussed on the changing Arctic – the land and communities that are on the cusp of rapid change. The session’s speakers were Susan Kutz from the University of Calgary and Jackie Dawson from the University of Ottawa, moderated by Pitseolak Pfeifer, Inuit community advocate and M.A. Candidate in Northern Studies at Carleton University.

These speakers painted a picture of the impact of a rapidly changing ecosystem on the communities that rely on it. A few key takeaways:

  • the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world;
  • the warming climate is increasing the range where parasites and disease can thrive, impacting wildlife populations;
  • food insecurity is a persistent problem in the Arctic, as imported food is extremely expensive; and
  • Inuit populations pursuing traditional activities are a critical, but untapped resource for better understanding the changing Arctic ecosystem and providing guidance on how to protect it.

As an IT practitioner, my mind naturally drifted to how digital infrastructure could be leveraged to help us better understand the Arctic and to provide opportunities for Inuit communities to remain and thrive in their communities.

So here’s a thought: imagine a future where Inuit across the Arctic could stay in their communities and become a vital part of Arctic research.

Inuit that are working the land and hunting, equipped with mobile phones, could provide real-time data collection on everything from temperature to ice pack to wildlife migration. This would enable the Inuit to remain in their communities and potentially gain income by providing critical data to a range of users – not only researchers, but also governments and private sector players that have an interest, economic or otherwise, in the Arctic.

It is possible — but the digital infrastructure needs to evolve to make it a reality. That means taking advantage of new technologies such as low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites that support mobile phone transmissions, and a robust physical backhaul network. In the most recent budget, the Government of Canada earmarked $100M to support the development of LEO technologies, and Canada has made significant inroads in developing network infrastructure in the North. The Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link project, a collaboration between the Government of the Northwest Territories, NorthwestTel and Ledcor Group, built a 1,154 km fibre-optic corridor from Inuvik to McGill Lake in the Northwest Territories. Network connections from McGill Lake south would enable the scenario imagined above to become a reality. Given the distance and terrain, that would take a concerted effort among public, private, and not-for-profit partners, but given Canada’s role as steward of the unique Arctic ecosystem, isn’t it a stretch goal worth pursuing?

* For those in the Ottawa area, these monthly breakfasts on Parliament Hill are an opportunity to learn about ground-breaking research while mixing with Parliamentarians and enjoying a hearty breakfast in the beautiful Parliamentary Dining Room. Organized by PAGSE (Partnership Group for Science and Engineering), CANARIE is a long-term sponsor of Bacon and Eggheads.  You can find more information here.