Scientists warn of demise of Canadian climate research
Published Sunday, March 14, 2010 9:31PM EDT
MONTREAL - When government funding for a foundation dedicated to climate research dries up at the end of the year, scientists say the aftershocks of its departure will be felt not only in Canada but by researchers around the globe.
The 2010 federal budget, unveiled this month, offered no new cash to the decade-old Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, a group that has been financing research on everything from melting glaciers to drought on the Prairies to the thawing permafrost.
The disappearance of a foundation that has made contributions to global initiatives on climate change is worrying for some in the international scientific community.
"There have been many countries that I think have been key players and I've always looked at Canada as being one of them," said Keith Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society.
"It's disheartening to hear that there may be efforts there to actually pull back on some of them."
Through the foundation's networks, Canadian scientists have contributed to the World Climate Research Programme and the North American Carbon Program.
More than 40 researchers funded by the foundation have also worked on assessment reports published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Since its creation in 2000, the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences has been a major source of financing and co-ordination for projects that gather and crunch data.
The foundation has bankrolled $110 million of research, but hasn't received any new funding since the Conservative government was elected in 2006.
Last winter, it made a formal request for $25 million annually over 10 years.
Its existing mandate runs until March 2012, but without a fresh cash injection the 12 research networks currently under its umbrella will be shuttered by the end of 2010.
Seitter said it's surprising to see Canada pull the plug, especially at a time when many nations are boosting climate and atmospheric research.
"Most countries are really continuing to invest heavily in both aspects of that because they recognize it as a serious global issue," Seitter said in an interview from Boston.
"All of those sorts of networks are vitally important to provide the worldwide coverage of high-quality data that we need, and the Canadians have actually been terrific resources for the whole climate issue."
Environment Minister Jim Prentice's office says even though there's no new funding for the foundation, the government remains committed to basic climate-change research.
A spokesman for Prentice said that under the International Polar Year program the government has invested about $100 million in 44 scientific projects, including climate-change research.
Frederic Baril said Arctic research facilities have also received an $87-million investment over two years.
"This is not the end of climate-change research in Canada," he wrote in an email.
"We recognize and appreciate the work that has been undertaken by the foundation."
"Other people in other countries don't see this as being a good thing -- they say 'Oh wow, that's not a good idea,' " he said.
"It's difficult for us. We feel it's a little bit short-sighted in the sense that climate is one of the larger environmental problems that face Canadians."
Even if the research is eventually restarted, if it does come to an end, gaps in the data would create challenges in that any future information gathered would not be consistent with years of work, he said.
"(The foundation's) lifespan has been such that it's allowed some networks to continue work for long enough that they've got an important body of information," Voogt said.
Canada also risks losing many of its climate experts to foreign projects, he added.
"You're taking your gold-medal hockey team and you're splitting up a lot of the players, and some of them are going to leave the country," Voogt said.
University of Manitoba professor Ronald Stewart, who co-leads the Drought Research Initiative network, said scientists from abroad have been trying to emulate their work.
"The world would lose a leader in comprehensive drought research," Stewart wrote in an email.
"We are trying our best to apply our knowledge now, but it is the tip of the iceberg as to what we could have done. We have affected international programs and our science is viewed highly by all."
Dawn Conway, the foundation's executive director, said the research networks will submit their final reports to the government before the end of the mandate.
Without a new government commitment, many of the climate researchers under the foundation will be forced to put away their equipment and close their doors by the end of the calendar year, Conway said.
"Climate and weather have a tremendous impact on the Canadian economy, if you think of drought or tourism," she added.
"This work needs to be done. We need that knowledge."