McGill University researcher Wayne Pollard, shown here at Axel Heiberg Island in the Arctic, said Canadian researchers have been disadvantaged by not doing much work in the Antarctic. ((Courtesy of Wayne Pollard))

Canadian scientists will get better access to British research stations in the Antarctic under a new deal between the two countries. In return, it will be easier for British researchers to use Canada's scientific facilities in the Arctic.

Northern and Indian Affairs Canada formally announced Wednesday that it had signed the memorandum of understanding, which establishes how the two countries will share polar facilities and infrastructure. That will provide new opportunities for joint field studies, shared access to scientific expertise, training and public outreach, the department said in a release.

A day earlier, Chuck Strahl, minister of Northern and Indian Affairs told CBC's The National he was "delighted" to sign the deal, as it will allow the two countries to share expertise in polar research.

"The scientists tell us that it's actually the key, in their view, to developing that centre of excellence that we want to build in the north," he said, referring to the High Arctic research station that the federal government has promised since 2007 to help build.

Canada is expected to seek expertise from the U.K. in the design of that station, as it has similar facilities in the Antarctic.

"In this case, with connections both to the north and south pole, we can do our best work, do our best science," Strahl said.

He added that such science will underpin the government's northern strategy on issues ranging from climate change to sovereignty issues.

Collaboration needed: U.K. commissioner


Anthony Cary, the British High Commissioner in Canada, says it is 'absolutely pointless' to try to deal with climate change on a national level. ((CBC))

Anthony Cary, the British High Commissioner in Canada, said international partnerships are crucial to research on such topics as climate change.

"It's absolutely pointless trying to deal with the issue of global climate at the level of a nation," he told CBC on Tuesday.

"So I think there has to be international collaboration. And we are only now starting to create the institutional structures to encourage that."

Wayne Pollard, a polar scientist at Montreal's McGill University who has conducted research at both poles, said he thinks Canada could benefit from better access to the Antarctic.

"The Antarctic provides a benchmark in terms of extreme conditions — it's the coldest, driest place on the planet," he added.

Pollard believes scientists need to study both the Arctic and the Antarctic to fully understand natural systems on a global scale.

"We're very, very knowledgeable about the northern hemisphere, but for some reason we've been very, very inactive in the Antarctic, and as a result our scientists are disadvantaged."

Pollard said until now, Canadian scientists have carried out research in the Antarctic using facilities owned by the U.S., U.K., New Zealand, Argentina and other countries long-established there. But that typically required complicated private arrangements and funding has been difficult to organize.

At the same time, it has been hard for foreign researchers to gain access to Canadian Arctic stations. The process often requires dozens of letters of requesting permission from different governments and aboriginal groups, Pollard said.

The new agreement is expected to simplify the process, allow the sharing of resources such as bush planes, and include a system for funding the research. It is expected that Canada will likely agree to pay for logistics, travel and accommodation for British scientists who come to the Canadian Arctic, while the U.K. will reciprocate for Canadian scientists who do work in the Antarctic.

Deal will enhance Arctic sovereignty: scientist

Both Pollard and Cary downplayed concerns that the deal might have implications for Canada's claim to sovereignty in the North.

"That hasn't been a problem or an issue in the negotiation of this agreement," Cary said, adding that the U.K. has no difficulty with Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic, apart from the separate issue of whether there are international rights to use the Northwest Passage.

Pollard said he believes the deal will actually enhance Canada's sovereignty.

"Because these scientists are there as our guests," he said. "They're not there on their own and challenging our sovereignty."

Pollard said the deal with the U.K. is just the beginning and there are already discussions underway with other countries about similar memorandums of understanding.