Nova Scotia

The cost of learning: Research in Canada's North up to 25 times more expensive

Travelling to remote locations and engaging with Indigenous communities for scientific research in the Canadian Arctic can be up to 25 times more expensive, according to a study in the journal Arctic Science.

Consultation with Indigenous communities and travel add costs to scientific studies

Ice floats in Slidre Fjord outside the Eureka Weather Station on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Monday, July 24, 2006. New research finds that hundreds of glaciers in Canada's High Arctic are shrinking and that many are likely fated to disappear. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Travelling to remote locations and engaging with Indigenous communities for scientific research in the Canadian Arctic can be up to 25 times more expensive, according to a study in the journal Arctic Science.

The study compared the costs of the same three-person, four-week seabird research camp within the north and south of Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Norway.

Canadian Arctic most expensive

It concluded research in the Canadian North was the most expensive due to air travel as well as consultation with and hiring from communities near research sites.

"Depending on what you add on, it can be up to anywhere from four to 25 times more expensive to work in the Arctic," said lead author Mark Mallory of Acadia University in Wolfville N.S.

Across the four countries, the study found conducting research in the Arctic is typically eight times more expensive than similar studies at a southern location, with travel, supplies and community outreach accounting for the difference.

Created fictitious study

Mallory, a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) chair in coastal ecosystems, has worked in the Arctic for 20 years studying seabirds.

With the Arctic increasingly becoming ground zero in the study of climate change, researchers wanted to quantify the cost difference between working in northern versus southern locations.

"A large part of the impetus to do this paper was to see whether we could actually find examples of how much more expensive it was to work in the Arctic," Mallory said.

The result was a fictitious, standardized research project based on real numbers from the cost of firearms, ammunition and bear fences to air travel and community workshops in Canada.

Norway, Canada most expensive

The two most expensive locations to conduct the basic seabird research were High Arctic Canada and High Arctic Norway.

Holding a community workshop in the Canadian High Arctic added $20,000 US to the cost, bringing the total to $71,270 US. Half of that added cost was air travel.

The greatest cost difference within a country was in Canada where the High Arctic was almost 19 times more expensive than in the Bay of Fundy of Nova Scotia when outreach is added.

"Doing those types of consultations in many cases is more expensive than doing an entire program in the south, so it adds a lot. But it's what we need to do and we should be doing," said Mallory.

What is outreach?

Outreach can involve everything from community consultations with the rental of community facilities and local hiring to companion interviews to gather Indigenous knowledge.

"In particular, in some Arctic locations and for some projects, consultation and collaboration with northern communities or organizations are essential to successful and meaningful research programs. In our Canadian work this has provided clear, mutual benefits," the report states.

Budget buster

The report noted governments recognize the extra expense of Arctic research but the additional costs of working there gobbles up research funding.

In Canada, the average NSERC ecological research grant is $30,000 with an additional $30,000 available in supplementary support for northern projects.

"For an 'average,' established researcher to undertake a project in the Canadian Arctic, effectively all of their core research grant would have to be applied to that one project, whereas a researcher doing the same work but in a southern location could theoretically conduct about five similar projects for the same core grant," the report states.

Mallory said the expense is especially challenging for younger researchers who generally have a harder time getting funding than more established colleagues.

Do it here or there

Some scientists have no choice but to work in the Arctic, like those studying the impacts of climate change on Arctic wildlife, permafrost and glaciers for instance, or looking at adaptation and resilience or implications on infrastructure.

But for others like Mallory there are alternatives.

He studies seabirds at all latitudes.

"If you work on a gull species or common eiders, we have in Nova Scotia up to the Arctic, you can do a lot more on eiders here than you can up North, so it really comes down to what you are trying to do," he said.


Paul Withers


Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.