As major northern research projects are delayed, cancelled, or put on hiatus over Covid-19, scientists hope collaboration with communities can keep their work alive.
Disruption brought on by the pandemic is raising concern about the future of long-term research into climate change risk and wilderness management, and how those projects can be maintained.
In the NWT, the summer of research usually starts in May and continues through to September or the early winter months. It is an important period – many projects rely on data only available when the temperature rises, while weather conditions make it easier to reach research stations and field locations.
Many of the projects originally slated for this summer deal with climate change or environmental impacts related to industry.
At the Trail Valley Creek research station, 50 km north of Inuvik, researchers are cancelling trips and pushing back time-sensitive projects designed to help the NWT manage the impacts of climate change.
Meanwhile, Anastasia Sniderhan – a research associate at Waterloo’s Wilfrid Laurier University, which maintains a field office in Yellowknife – has been forced to postpone her study of biofuel harvesting near Fort Providence.
The work involves monitoring permafrost conditions, nutrient levels in the soil, and water quality. Because she is working with vegetation and plants, her work is limited to the growing season.
Postponing by a year means research may be lost because harvesting starts this winter.
Due to safety concerns, Wilfrid Laurier’s labs are not operating – limiting the types of research that can take place. Travel restrictions mean the university’s researchers, based in Ontario, can no longer support Yellowknife staff in person or continue their own projects in the territory.
“In most cases, researchers from outside the NWT are not able to enter the territory,” said Andy Bevan, president of Aurora College, which operates a research division with three offices.
“Researchers do not qualify as essential services unless their work is directly related to Covid-19 research.”
‘We would be really hesitant’
Bridget Rusk, also a research associate at Wilfrid Laurier, said spring time is “critical” for aspects of her work like field measurements of melting snow.
Rusk’s work is “trying to tell a story to better improve how we’re interacting with the landscape or mitigating risk, whether that be climate change or flood management and so on,” she said.
“A year delay is unfortunate because the information we find is valuable in actively managing all of these environmental variables.”
Students, in particular, are affected by delays because they rely on funding to complete thesis projects in order to graduate.
But southern-based universities that work closely with communities also understand the risk they could be introducing.
Several communities have voiced concern about people travelling through their lands and the threat of Covid-19 to their vulnerable populations, especially knowledge-holders and Elders.
William Quinton, director of the Cold Regions Centre at Wilfrid Laurier, said: “Even if the borders would open tomorrow, we would be really hesitant to enter the community due to the possibility of asymptomatic transfer.”
Many other researchers share the same mentality and believe erring on the side of caution is the safest and best option.
Dehcho Guardians step in
With these limitations, Quinton thinks there are exciting opportunities for more community involvement in the work northern scientists do.
“We’re not looking to hang up our hat for the year,” he told Cabin Radio.
“We’re trying to think creatively and move forward with engaging communities. Climate change is not going away, we can’t afford to do nothing for the year.”
That shift to community involvement is happening at the Scotty Creek research station, around 50 km south of Fort Simpson.
Just before the pandemic, Fort Simpson hosted the Dehcho K’ehodi gathering, a Dehcho First Nations-led stewardship program. (Dehcho K’ehodi means “taking care of the Dehcho” in Dene Zhatié.)
The Dehcho First Nations states its stewardship program aims to “support and strengthen the Dene language and to enable youth-Elder mentorships, so future generations of Dene can learn their culture and how to be on the land.”
Now that southern researchers have vacated Scotty Creek, Dehcho Guardians – residents who monitor the land and water – are starting to fill roles and gaps. Guardians have begun water quality monitoring for communities and the territorial government, and have carried out fish surveys.
Though Scotty Creek is closed to people outside the Dehcho, guardians are using the opportunity to learn new skills – and keep research going.
‘Finding new ways’
Mike Low is the Aboriginal aquatic resource and oceans management coordinator for the Dehcho First Nations. He says there are still pandemic challenges for Dehcho residents but the work will get done.
“We’re working hard to make sure that these community guardian programs are ongoing and that they’ll have work,” Low said.
“The only way we can have community members on the land to carry out this work, which is very important to the communities, is we’re going to have to deal with immediate family members until restrictions are lifted.”
The relationship between communities and researchers is important, Low says, because “if a researcher can have faith in the guardian program … community members can then start doing more and more work.”
Quinton thinks this may ultimately mean a bigger research role for guardians once the pandemic passes.
“This is not everything shutting down,” he said. “This is finding new ways to get things done. We are adaptable and giving people another way of doing things, which brings with it a lot of new opportunities.
“Scotty Creek will still be there, computers ticking away. This is not going to derail us.
“This is an opportunity to stop and think, to revisit our priorities, and maybe move forward more carefully than we would compared to the routine way.”