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U of M scientists take Arctic's pulse

New $15-M research facility one-of-a-kind

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Celebrated Arctic scientists at the University of Manitoba will likely be the ones who announce the bad news if climate change finally dooms the planet.

They have the science, knowledge and equipment to get up close and personal with the tiniest elements within Arctic sea ice.

The U of M officially opened the Nellie Cournoyea Arctic Research Facility on Monday. The $15-million project is unique among such facilities in the world, said director David Barber.

"It allows us to start our investigations at the molecular level," which no other facility can do, said Barber.

What the facility won't be able to do is reverse climate change, he said.

"There's no magic bullet," he said.

They're figuring out "the consequences of the changing climate and how we can adjust to them?"

The combination of sophisticated labs at the campus and the Arctic research ship Amundsen have brought together more than 100 researchers, centred on the top two floors of the Clayton H. Riddell Faculty of Environment, Earth and Resources.

"It's unique globally," said Barber.

The U of M even produces its own Arctic sea ice, so Barber's team can study it on campus, and then apply their findings out on the Arctic sea ice. "It's becoming a much more complex environment," said Barber, who described the facility's studies thusly: "It's about anthropocene -- the time of humans on Earth."

That sounds a little like something that has a beginning and an end, doesn't it?

The money came primarily from a federal $10-million Canada Research Chair grant and from the province.

"It's critical to our future," said a beaming U of M president David Barnard, who said U of M has already been a global leader in Arctic research.

The facility is staffed with international researchers "whose discoveries are vitally important to the future of the planet."

The facility is named after former Northwest Territories premier Nellie Cournoyea, who attended the ceremony but did not respond to the honour with the usual platitudes.

Cournoyea said she hopes the project leads to appropriate northern development, which would create jobs. She pointed out that on Saturday, Ottawa committed to a $300-million road link between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk.

"There's been little going on" since planning for the proposed pipeline bogged down, plans in which Riddell and other major oil and gas companies have been involved for many years, she said.

Cournoyea said residents of the North have spent seven years waiting to see if the Mackenzie gas pipeline would be built, and "consultants, researchers, and lawyers" were the only people to make money.

Traditional Inuit knowledge has been the basis of much research, but it has largely gone unrecognized, Cournoyea said.

"One of the things about the Arctic, the more you know, the less you know," she said. "We do need to get our act together and get our focus together."

Riddell was effusive in his praise for the new facility. The U of M geology grad told Barnard and Barber: "This is the most momentous announcement you've had in the past 50 years, give or take the return of the Winnipeg Jets."

Advanced Education Minister Erin Selby lauded Cournoyea. "It is so important we honour pioneering women," and equally important to link women with science, she said.

Barber said the facility works in partnership with the Inuit as well as with Denmark and Greenland.

Operating the Amundsen costs $55,000 a day, he said, highlighting how vital it is to be able to conduct key research on campus. Having the facility open will attract dozens more grad students, many of them international, Barber said.

Prof. Soren Rysgaard, the Canada Research Chair in Arctic geo-microbiology and climate change, who was hired from Denmark two years ago, noted with a laugh: "There are so many brains in this building.

"In the next few years, you will hear a lot more from us on the science," said Rysgaard.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 19, 2013 A2

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