Arctic research station in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, reopens after pandemic shutdown

Restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic have kept the doors of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay largely closed to the public and researchers for more than a year, but the station is reopening these doors.

The recent break encouraged researchers to reach out to the community of Cambridge Bay to help collect their data, and it also allowed station staff to fine-tune the new facility, said Martin Leger, the director of laboratories at the station.

Léger spends his time writing health and safety protocols for use by laboratories.

“You just can’t walk into a lab. You need protocols to keep things going in a safe and healthy way for people who are working,” he said.

The research station had barely been open for six months when the pandemic hit. It was a central part of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Arctic strategy, which focused on understanding the impacts of climate change.

The massive station buildings, which cost an estimated $250 million to construct, officially opened in August 2019. They closed along with other federal government buildings in early 2020.

The unexpected break was in some ways a blessing, said Chris Arko, the station’s internet technology manager. That’s because he was able to spend time preparing for an influx of seekers wanting to go online.

Martin Léger, head of the station’s laboratories, talks to Chris Arko, photographed on the screen of the mobile telepresence robot. (Jane George/CBC)

At the same time, he set up a powerful public Wi-Fi network at the station, which he called “unmatched in the North” for its capacity.

Arko has also worked on various projects that have a direct use, such as a computerized 3D system with a printer that can produce plastic parts as well as sunglasses.

There is also now a mobile robot on site. It’s called STRETCH, short for “Super Telepresence Robot for Exploring the Canadian High Arctic Research Station”.

This robot has an online screen that can be used to connect with people outside of Cambridge Bay, get repair information, or provide communications to researchers.

Arko said it’s possible for someone anywhere in the world to steer the robot, which has a display on a stick connected to a self-balancing roller.

Using 3D imaging, a machine can produce designs for a 3D printer capable of printing parts or even plastic snow goggles. (Jane George/CBC)

“Everything they said they could do in Star Trek in 1993, we can pretty much do today,” he said of the robot.

The cost of the robot actually offered savings due to the cost of traveling to and staying in Cambridge Bay, Arko said.

Arko has also developed a virtual tour of the research camp near the station which allows researchers to learn about the safety rules and the layout of the research camp even before their arrival.

The station’s main research building now hosts outdoor groups like this gathering of young polar researchers in its atrium. (Jane George/CBC)

Among the researchers currently on site is Brent Else from the University of Calgary who is studying greenhouse gases in the marine environment, as part of a larger international study.

These days, he travels on the sea ice to collect ice cores for later study to better understand how much carbon dioxide is released or stored in the waters around Cambridge Bay.

Else, like other researchers, was unable to come to Cambridge Bay last year.

Brent Else, an Arctic atmospheric and marine scientist from the University of Calgary, is seen here outside the station’s maintenance building. It’s his first visit to Cambridge Bay since 2020, but now he’s returning to the pack ice for this research. (Jane George/CBC)

“The pandemic caused us some problems, but fortunately we were able to maintain our data collection because we were able to establish links with local technicians and the association of hunters and trappers,” said Else.

“We were able to fill in the gaps by getting involved in the community like this.”

Else plans to stay in Cambridge Bay until early June, when the pack ice becomes too unstable to cross.

But her research will continue for years, Else said, to look for trends over time.