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Canadian High Arctic Research Station

A federal agency within the recently renamed Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC), Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR) has a corporate office in Ottawa while its main operations are at the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) in Cambridge Bay, a hamlet on Victoria Island, Nunavut. It’s a key stop for marine traffic through the Northwest Passage – an increasingly accessible region that presents environmental, political and strategic opportunities.

POLAR, dedicated to the advancement of Arctic knowledge, has found an intriguing new purpose for used shipping containers. Critical to expanding global trade, there are tens of millions of them, but while they’re an efficient way to ship goods and supplies to the North, returning them empty simply isn’t economical, so they’re routinely abandoned and can be a blight on the landscape as they eventually rust away over many years.

From a technical viewpoint, deploying often-fragile research equipment can be problematic. With necessity as much the mother of innovation as invention, CHARS is re-purposing those abandoned sea cans. 

Funded by the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, POLAR, and other groups such as the Arctic Research Foundation (ARF), the containers are insulated and heaters and composting toilets are installed. The easily-transportable container labs can accommodate up to seven researchers and can function as local communications hubs or havens when the weather closes in.

Powered by solar panels and wind turbines, they can even supply auxiliary equipment such as weather stations. University of Calgary geographer Brent Else has packed one with equipment to measure ocean absorption of greenhouse gases, contributing to understanding how the Arctic responds to and influences climate change.

“We can easily adapt these labs to a wide variety of science projects: geology, archeology, biology or even marine research,” says Adrian Schimnowski, Chief Executive Officer and Operations Director of the ARF, a private non-profit headquartered in Waterloo, Ontario.

“We are guests on Inuit land,” Schimnowski says, “Inuit know how to live off the land better than anyone else. We receive support from the community in many different ways, and so out of respect we provide support to the community. It’s a way of saying ‘thank you’.”

POLAR’s strategic plan sets out broad goals in keeping with its vision for a sustainable future guided by knowledge and collaboration. Its research framework development drew on engagement with key northern and indigenous groups bodies years before construction began. There was extensive consideration of the effects it might have on permafrost and vice versa. 

Respect for the land and its history are integral. An archaeologist helped the field crew, which included an Inuit elder, to avoid archaeological sites dating back millennia. “When they explain the changes they’ve observed in the area, how they have dealt with similar problems in the past, and communicate their holistic view of the land, we get a better understanding of the landscape,” says POLAR permafrost scientist Stéphanie Coulombe. She is part of a team researching damage wrought by thawing permafrost on a popular trail from the community of Kugluktuk to a traditional hunting, fishing and berry-picking area. Sections had become increasingly impassable as the frozen ground settled into pools of water and mud.

“We’re working to find out exactly what is happening […] and determine the best way to make it stable and safe,” Coulombe says. “This project is a good example of the benefits that result when scientists and indigenous communities come together to solve a problem, collaborating and sharing knowledge, in a spirit of mutual respect.”

Contact Information

Canadian High Arctic Research Station

1 Uvajuq Road, PO Box 2150, Cambridge Bay, NU, X0B 0C0
Contact: Jennifer C. Hubbard, President & CEO 
Email: info@polar.gc.ca 
Tel: +1-867-983-742