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Long-awaited High Arctic Research Station nearly complete: group

A decade after it was first promised under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada's new High Arctic Research Station, seen in the community of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut in an undated handout photo, is finally poised to open this fall.

HO-Polar Knowledge Canada/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A decade after it was first promised, Canada's new High Arctic Research Station is nearly complete and already giving scientists access to a vast new section of ice and tundra.

"We're trying to come up with a long-term, systematic, multi-disciplinary view of this part of the world, which is really understudied," said David Scott, president of Polar Knowledge Canada, which operates the new station in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

A line item in the 2007 federal budget, the station was a centrepiece of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Arctic strategy. Located in the centre of the High Arctic right along the Northwest Passage, the station was to give researchers a home base in a part of the North lacking in scientific infrastructure.

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Although work will continue on the main building for a few months, the centre is "largely operational," said Scott.

Researchers are already living and working on the site.

In fact, it's the station's fourth field season. Last year, the station booked 900 nights worth of accommodation for Canadian and international scientists.

"The demand is growing," Scott said.

The station was built for a total cost of about $250-million. It will cost $26.5-million a year to operate.

That pays for a centre that can accommodate 44 scientists.

It will have an animal lab that includes a small crane for lifting large carcasses onto operating tables. A cold lab can be chilled to –10 C for studying snow and ice. A clean lab will allow scientists to study samples without contamination from outside sources.

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It will offer digital imaging, rock crushing and a mechanical workshop. A small stock of off-road vehicles, small boats, bicycles, tents, camping equipment and satellite phones will be available.

But it's not all about the scientists. The station was built in the middle of Cambridge Bay for a reason.

"Half of the physical footprint of the building is public space," said Scott. "We've got objectives here to do knowledge sharing and business incubation and educational programming for kids."

That's not just an add-on, he said. Being part of the community will be essential to world-class scientific work.

"To us, this is part of world-class because it allows us to access that traditional knowledge aspect. It requires us to develop trusting relationships, identify the right knowledge holders and get them involved from the outset."

Much of the science conducted at the station will benefit northerners.

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One ongoing project seeks to map how sea ice is changing with a view to advising local people on safe travel routes. Another project is looking at arctic char in response to observations from elders that the staple fish tastes differently these days than it used to.

The station has already joined the Canadian Network of Northern Research Operators, a group of Arctic research stations operated by foundations, governments and universities that stretches from Inuvik and Kluane in the west to Churchill in the south to Eureka on Ellesmere Island in the east.

Now that the Cambrige Bay station is operating, Scott said Polar Knowledge Canada is helping market that network to international researchers.

"(We're) bringing a little more cohesion to that group to help them advertise themselves more globally to the international community that can bring some operating dollars. That whole network is a huge potential for Canada that is somewhat underutilized."

South Korea has already signed an preliminary agreement to partner with Canadian researchers.

"We've got a quarter of the global Arctic, but Canada doesn't have adequate capacity to study that Arctic. We always need to partner in."

The centre is expected to formally open in October, Scott said.

"We're super eager for the completion of construction."

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