By Dr. John Nightingale

It’s a very cold Sunday (April 22 – Earth Day) in Montreal – in fact it’s about to snow.  I am here with the Vancouver Aquarium’s director of Arctic programs, Eric Solomon, to attend a major conference on the Polar regions of the world. The conference is called IPY 2012 – From Knowledge to Action. IPY, as many might know, was the International Polar Year (2007-2008) – a world-wide effort that focussed thousands of scientists on all manner of arctic research, including the natural,  social and health sciences.

The first IPY conference was held in St. Petersburg Russia in 2008, the second on Oslo Norway in 2010, and this is the “wrap up” conference. Just over 2,800 scientists are expected, including policy makers, academics, government agency managers and staff, the media and people like Eric and I – who are interested in integrating and communicating information about our Arctic and the changes it is undergoing. Because IPY was the Polar year, that means the conference will cover both Arctic and Antarctic topics.

The Conference officially starts tonight with an opening reception. However, because of the importance of this meeting, and the range of participants, there are many “side bar” meetings going on at all hours (it seems), even before the official start.

Today, Eric is a participant in a day-long workshop (IPY Polar Educators) on education – both in the North, and on Arctic issues in schools across Canada. One real Vancouver Aquarium interest is using the knowledge acquired through science, and through experiential knowledge (sometimes called traditional knowledge) to enhance the education of students in B.C., as well as doing what we can to help educational efforts in the North. Because Canada’s Arctic is so vast (it’s bigger itself than most countries), and has less than 55,000 people (imagine a country about the size of all of Europe – with only 55,000 people), educational efforts can use the “boost” of collaborative approaches and our assistance.  We will do what we can to help education from elementary schools up through technical and post-secondary programs. We’ve already been working with Arctic College in Iqaluit and Pond Inlet – both in Nunavut, over the past two years. And, we want to do what we can to enhance what British Columbia students learn and understand about this huge and amazing part of our own country.

In early 2011, I was appointed to the Board of the Canadian Polar Commission by the Prime Minister.  The Commission was created by legislation in the 1980s to serve as a cross-government and cross-organisational effort to collect knowledge about the polar regions, synthesizing it to ensure it is spread across all interest groups and parts of government.

I am about to head off to a discussion led by Foreign Affairs Canada on “how Canada gets organized” to deal with Arctic issues. This should be a lively and very interesting discussion because my perception is that while we have a lot of science and other activities going on in the Arctic, we are not as well organized as we should be in that the “left hand and the right hand” sometimes don’t communicate as well as we could. This discussion involves government, quasi-government organizations such as the Canadian Polar Commission, major Arctic programs at universities, institutions such as the Vancouver Aquarium, and the NGO (non-governmental agency) community.

A final note on the pre-conference activities.  Canada’s research Icebreaker – the Amundsen, is tied up next to the Science Centre in the old port of Montreal today. The ship, which is operated by the Canadian Coast Guard, is here for major engine repairs (it was constructed in the 1970s). The Coast Guard opened the ship for public tours today – and it was gratifying to see so many people from Montreal – families, couples, you name it – all going aboard to learn more about Canada’s research efforts in the North. The Amundsen’s operations are funded by Arctic Net – the major Canadian program for coordinating scientific research in the North. Headquartered at Université Laval, the program is one of the world’s largest national Arctic research networks, and brings together scientists and other experts in natural, human health and the social sciences from over 30 Canadian universities with partners in Inuit organizations, northern communities and government agencies. This major program was extended for another seven years by the Federal Government late in 2011, a move we think wise given the huge changes taking place in our Arctic.

This conference is all about the changes taking place in the North – changes in climate, the resulting changes in permafrost, ocean conditions, and the impacts the changes have on people, life and culture – to name only some. Between Eric and I, we will do our best to convey some of the new learnings as we absorb them over the next few days.

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