Magazine article Alternatives Journal

Northern Science Undermined: Budgets Decline as Environmental Concerns Increase

Magazine article Alternatives Journal

Northern Science Undermined: Budgets Decline as Environmental Concerns Increase

Article excerpt

On the Peace and Athabasca Rivers in northern Alberta, scientists trace the fate and effects of effluents from pulp mills and other sources. In the Mackenzie River Basin, ecologists project the impact of a changing climate on northern forests, water bodies and wildlife. In the high Arctic, scientists sample air, water and the tissues of wildlife, detecting contaminants carried by winds from the South. These activities illustrate the role of science in assessing the state of the northern environment. This role is becoming more important, as mines, dams, and other northern resource projects are developed, and as southern industries and cities increase their impact on the North.

But the availability of information about the northern environment is becoming more uncertain. As elsewhere in Canada, financial support for environmental science in the North is declining. However, innovations are also occurring in northern research, including new ways of gathering and using environmental knowledge, that may lead to more effective links between science and northern concerns.

Northern environmental research has experienced both boom and bust, as it has tracked the fortunes of the northern resource economy. Between 1970 and 1974, and again in the early 1980s, northern science boomed, in response to oil and gas exploration and impact assessment regulations. In the early 1990s, several large research programmes again contributed to northern science.

However, most have now ended. They included the Northern River Basins Study, which assessed the impact of industrial activity on rivers in northern Alberta and downstream to Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories; the Mackenzie Basin Impact Study, which focused on the potential impacts of climate change on this region; and the Arctic Environmental Strategy, one goal of which was to enhance northern research and environmental management capabilities. Each of these projects was supported by the federal government, and by other governments or agencies.

Northern studies are also affected by tighter national environmental research budgets. By 1998 Environment Canada will have reduced its funding for science by 35 percent, compared to 1995 levels. Support for university scientists working in the north, provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Polar Continental Shelf Project and other programmes, is also declining, although it remains important.

These declines are occurring even as observers note a pressing need for more knowledge of the northern environment. The Royal Society of Canada and the Canadian Polar Commission have documented a widespread perception among researchers and policy makers that support for northern science is inadequate.

In 1991, for example, the federal auditor-general concluded that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans does not have adequate scientific resources to manage northern fisheries effectively, or to deal with climate change, contaminants or other issues. Since then, this department has announced large cuts at the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg, its major laboratory for northern science. …

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