Research in Extreme Conditions


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Welcome to the Polar Continental Shelf Program

This post isn’t so much about biotech or even health as it is research overall, but stick with me, as I introduce a research base very few ever think of…

There have been recent highlights of the importance of the changes in the Arctic, monitoring of climate change, discovery of natural resources, territorial disputes over tiny islands and the tensions of economic development and environmental stewardship.

Daily transactions, policy briefs and international cooperation agreements are discussed, negotiated and approved with the help of essential research that builds the evidence for key decisions.  Where do the data come from? Who collects them? What organizations help enable research to be conducted in extreme conditions of isolation, cold weather and remote infrastructure?

I had the opportunity to find out during my inaugural visit to Resolute Bay in Nunavut, Canada, on the tip of the mythical Northwest Passage – home of the Polar Continental Shelf Program. The PCSP is located in the high-Arctic and coordinates field logistics in support of advancing scientific knowledge. It operates adjacent to the Inuit village of Resolute Bay. The PCSP was established in 1958 by the government of Canada and has built up a logistics support network that stretches approximately 2,160 km from Alaska to Greenland, and from the Arctic Circle to the geographic North Pole.  The PCSP also serves a secondary purpose as an Arctic base to support management of Canada’s lands and natural resources and contributes to the exercise of Canadian arctic sovereignty.

Arriving at Resolute Bay from the majestic Canadian ice-breaker the Louis S. St. Laurent (LSSL) via helicopter (as there is no port), it took several minutes for the reality of being in the Arctic Circle to sink in. The landscape was flat and barren, unlike the lush green forests and Rocky Mountains of the Canadian ‘south’.  The first room of the PCSP looks like a replica of an elementary school’s cloak room, with pegs and benches for personnel to de-layer from their coats, gloves, hats and other winter gear. Past two additional sets of doors, one enters the warm and welcoming 100-person cafeteria room, where copies of Nature can be found on the information table, next to Polar Bear warning brochures (yes, even the scientific journals make it to the land of the polar bears).

Each year, PCSP is the landing base/home for 1000+ scientists who conduct more than 165 research projects at more than 60 field camps across the Canadian Arctic.  Researchers rely on PCSP for equipment, logistics and knowledge of safety and cultural aspects of working in the extreme environment. PCSP arranges air and overland transportation, radio communications and navigation and global positioning.  It is able to coordinate and arrange research camps to share in logistics synergies and mitigate the risks and dangers of working in isolation in the high arctic. PCSP delivers about $10 million worth of logistical services to science projects ranging from anthropology to zoology. The transportation costs are immense and the terrain treacherous – the costs of disarray are high. PCSP acts as an Arctic liaison between Canadian Arctic residents and the incoming scientists, providing advice on permitting, licensing and environmental assessment process that makes the science possible. In practical terms, PCSP also provides accommodation, daily catering, internet and working space. Specialty laboratory extensions include a walk-in freezer, fume hoods, compressed-air supply and a water purification system. There may not be rows upon rows of drug development or green biotech happening in the Arctic, but the one can feel the air of insatiable curiosity to know more about the edges of our world.

Resolute is one of the globe’s coldest inhabited places, with an average yearly temperature of -16.4°C. My visit to PCSP came at the close of the 2013 ‘summer’ research season, as the Resolute Bay base had ushered all the scientists home and completed Operation Nanook for the Canadian military. We were the last large visiting party for the lean staff of PCSP to manage. Tim McCagherty and Glen Parsons were the PSCP managers on duty and shared with us the important work of the base. Even at the end of the 2013 season, the two men talked with energy, enthusiasm and gusto about the need to understand the North and to achieve that understanding with respect and safety.

The PCSP team welcomed the 2010 Canadian government investment of $11 million to refurbish the PCSP, doubling the number of beds available and adding leisure areas and an exercise room. The staff reminded us that for scientists engaged in short intense periods of research, it is important they have a comfortable start and end to their projects. Conducting frontier research in Canada’s remote Arctic is not without its dangers – the nexus community has suffered losses in 2011 with the crash of a Boeing 737 and recently in September 2013 with the loss of a Canadian coast guard helicopter.

I came away from PCSP with a new appreciation of frontier research. With the development issues of the Arctic coming to the fore with climate change, it is important to know where our research comes from and the support network that it takes to obtain data and evidence.  Government investment in basic science is not only about the principle investigators, but also the community of hard-working personnel who support frontier research.

Julia Fan Li

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