Climate Change Focus Timely for Swiss-Canadian Polar Research Collaboration

By Susan Hickman

Polar research collaboration between Switzerland and Canada goes back a long way, but it’s timely, say scientists, to set up new partnerships to benefit both countries.

On the eve of a multinational expedition that will circumnavigate Antarctica, the Embassy of Switzerland and Carleton University hosted the first Swiss-Canadian Polar Research Symposium on campus on Nov. 21 to 22. The event attracted leading scientists from both countries working in such fields as glaciology, permafrost, ecology and climate change, as well as government and funding agency representatives.

The Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition (ACE) is the first project of the new Swiss Polar Institute (SPI), which hopes to spark interest in polar research among young scientists and explorers, and enhance international collaboration.

“This conference could not come at a more opportune time,” said Beat Nobs, Swiss ambassador to Canada, referring to the recently ratified Paris climate change agreement. “A country like ours is often overlooked when it comes to climate change, but Switzerland has to expect a dramatic reduction of its glaciers. The Swiss Alps are like a vertical Arctic and Switzerland has a long record of outstanding research in the study of its glaciers as well as polar research.”

Switzerland’s scientists want to engage in collaborative research and can contribute to the study of climate change as well as political knowledge, said Nobs.

Urs Obrist, senior science and technology counsellor at the Embassy of Switzerland in Canada and co-organizer of the conference with Carleton’s Stephan Gruber, Canada Research Chair in Climate Change Impacts/Adaptation in Northern Canada, pointed to similarities of the two countries.

“(They) are both very strongly affected by climate change and melting glaciers,” he said. “For Swiss researchers, however, a key challenge is accessing polar regions. Canada can provide access to the Arctic.”

Potential for more Polar Research Collaboration

Obrist suggested the ACE expedition, which has Canadian researchers on board, could lead to further collaboration. The expedition launched on Nov.19, heading towards Cape Town, from where it will begin its three-month cruise through the Antarctic islands beginning Dec.20. One of some 22 projects in the works is a multidisciplinary study of changes in the ecosystems of an area in East Antarctica, led by Université Laval.

Other symposium participants included David Scott, CEO of Polar Knowledge Canada (a federal research organization established in 2015 that will open a world-class research facility in Nunavut next year), who spoke of the need for more “polar players” from around the world to augment research capacity; Natacha Tofield-Pasche of the SPI who spoke of the Antarctica expedition; Louis Fortier, Canada Research Chair on the Response of Arctic Marine Ecosystems to Climate Change at Université Laval, scientific director of ArcticNet that studies the changing coastal Canadian Arctic and project leader for the Canadian Research Icebreaker Amundsen; Warwick Vincent of the Centre d’études nordiques (CEN) at Laval, which has been studying geosystems and ecosystems in the North since the early ‘60s; and Maribeth Murray of the 71-year-old Arctic Institute of North America (AINA) based at the University of Calgary.

“We welcome Swiss collaborators,” said Murray, who talked about AINA’s Kluane Lake Research Station in the Yukon that studies climate change and ecology in the North. “Canada is a leader in Arctic observation and our Arctic observing summits have called for sustained long-term operation of an international network. There are key opportunities for partnerships and it’s time for Canada and countries like Switzerland to step up to the plate.”