29th November 2010 Ottawa, Canada

Adventures in Arctic Biodiversity

Elinor, our intern here at the British High Commission in Ottawa, has kindly agreed to share her experience at the recent Arctic Biodiversity Symposium that was held in Ottawa, at the Canadian Museum of Nature this past week (November 18-19, 2010).  See below for her take on what its happening in the world of Canadian Arctic Biodiversity.


On November 18th, Nicole and I attended the Arctic Biodiversity Symposium at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Fuelled by Danish pastries and copious amounts of coffee, we spent the day surrounded by enthusiasts with plentiful expedition patches sewn onto their (polar) fleeces.

Aside from the opening address from Manitoban environmental heavyweight Maurice Strong, the first Executive Director of the UNEP, particular highlights were presentations by John Fyfe at the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis and Paul Hebert of the University of Guelph.

Fyfe talked about the scientific basis for climate change in the Arctic. One striking part was the vast array of climate models that researchers can use, and the huge disparity between their predictions. Some predict almost none of the current ice cover will exist towards the end of the century, whereas some indicate closer to 60%. Unfortunately, seeing how some observational data fit the models, it seems to be the more pessimistic models that are closer to the truth.

Hebert described how taxonomy is stuck in the dark ages, and promoted DNA barcoding. The basic idea is that every species can be distinguished by a short, standardised DNA sequence – so if we have the sequence for a species and scan a sample of anonymous DNA, we can find out what it is. A consequence is the International Barcode of Life Project, of which Canada is hosting the secretariat (the UK also plays a central role): the project was launched earlier this year, with the CN tower displaying the barcode for a beaver (See Google Images: ‘CN Tower Beaver Barcode’ for photos). 

However, Hebert pointed out that to get this comprehensive view of species in the Arctic, Canadian researchers desperately need funding. Hebert was not alone – financial shortcomings were mentioned in several discussions, and it is clear that many think Canada should focus some resources on studying and conserving the enormous swathe of land in the north. University programs are being cut and facilities closed. Although it’s common knowledge that competition is non-existent between airlines in Canada, travelling to the Arctic is more expensive than getting researchers just about anywhere else in the world. All indications are that these trends need to be reversed.

The importance of improving taxonomy in Canada was also emphasised by the Council of Canadian Academies’ expert panel report, ‘Canadian Taxonomy: Exploring Biodiversity, Creating Opportunity’, which was launched at the symposium.

We next took a field trip to the Museum of Nature’s research facility, just over the river in Quebec. We ventured into the DNA lab (where some of the aforementioned barcoding is taking place), and talked to research botanists, ichthyologists, fossil experts and mollusc specialists, most of whom had spent time operating in the Arctic. Canada is renowned for its natural resources and has plenty of scientists willing to focus on the Arctic. It is a shame that by almost all accounts, there does not seem to be a strategy to try and ensure that either will be around in the future.

About Nicole Arbour

Based in the National Capital, I cover the federal S&T sector, national S&T organisations, as well as local industry and academic partners. I manage the UK’s Science & Innovation Network…

Based in the National Capital, I cover the federal S&T sector, national S&T organisations, as well as local industry and academic partners. I manage the UK’s Science & Innovation Network in Canada, and our contribution towards the wider Canada-UK relationship. This year my focus will be working towards the delivery of the Canada-UK Joint Declaration and the Canada-UK Joint Innovation Statement. In my spare time I like to cook and spend quality time with my family. Find me on Twitter @narbour