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Canada’s Arctic: Spatial Info/Geotech Opportunity

Canada’s north has always been a challenge to those living there and to geoscience professionals alike. The sheer size of the arctic and extreme cold have resulted in difficult access and contributed toward significant challenges for mapping, measuring and monitoring these areas.

From the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, where the climate is the warmest since 1800, to Canada’s arctic where The Globe and Mail recently reported that “ polar ice was recently measured at the North Pole as being 3.42 million square kilometres – 18 per cent smaller than the previous record of 4.17 million square kilometres set in 2007″, the north is rapidly changing.

These changes are likely to result in many challenges and opportunities for Canadian spatial information professionals and will cause the pace of geotechnology innovation for the north to expand. The harsh climate will cause many current technological approaches to innovate more. Satellite-based communications of vast amounts of spatial data will flow across the north and further south, linking sensors, monitoring systems and maritime presence in new ways.

Understanding Arctic change internationally

To understand the impact that the melting arctic will have, one need not look further than the Russian arctic, where, similar changes are now happening, and the development of the north, along with a rapidly expanding marine industry, is now well under way. Emerging markets in Asia can now access Russian and European markets through a new northern shipping route. Northern countries including, Russia, Finland, Norway, Iceland and Greenland are all interested in expanding trade and commerce through similar means.

For Canada, changing ice conditions and warming in the north will have similar impacts. Traditional Pacific and Atlantic ports will begin to compete with the north, and in the not too distant future, the northern portions of many of Canada’s provinces and territories will also compete as services and support to northern development grow rapidly. Expanded economic activity and development in the north will require spatial information technologies, more geospatial data and more people educated in using geomatics and spatial applications.

Development in north arising through climate change will require more surveying, more remote sensing, more GNSS and a wide array of internet and mobility related technologies for navigation, monitoring and transportation. What if high-speed trains headed north from Edmonton, Saskatoon and Churchill?

Quebec’s Plan Nord is designed to develop the north, while offering the ‘Project of a Generation’. According to the plan, “Northern Québec has 1.5 million ha of arable land, one of the biggest reserves in North America. For comparison purposes, total cultivated land in Québec stands at 2 million ha.” Accordingly, earth observation satellite data and variable rate farming techniques will be put to use as agricultural production in that province expands.

The Canadian National Defence program is also preparing for expanded operations in the north. “With the Arctic’s potentially vast reserves of fossil fuels; abundance of minerals, gold, and diamonds; and potential for shorter shipping routes as the Arctic ice cap melts away in the face of climate change, this increasingly accessible region is drawing greater national and international attention.” Not only is there a continued presence in Canada’s north, but military, navigation, emergency, meteorological and mining services are going to expand. Improved digital elevation models, aeronautical navigation charting, monitoring and maritime positioning will be necessary.

Need for a geomatics and spatial information response

Along with an expanding northern perspective, Canadians ought to be aware that other nations bordering the arctic are investing heavily in the north at the present time, eyeing the potential for development and economic development. While the Berlin Wall may have fallen some time ago, a new and potentially conflicting region in the arctic is emerging – that requires a Canadian strategy in response, one supported by vast amounts of spatial data to support decision making that is effective, timely and realistic.

Global competition will drive new investment into the north. Both governments and industry will need to work together to ensure projects move forword, all the while ensuring their presence in relationship to the social and environmental balances of the regions. This is no easy task as past large-scale projects across Canada have demonstrated.

But it does raise the need for geomatics professionals in Canada to begin a stronger engagement into raising awareness about the need for improved spatial data, and it’s role in northern development in Canada. Explaining the role of spatial data for northern decision making, development and economics will be needed. While educational institutions in Canada have a long history of being involved in northern research, broad-based industry has not – and it should.


Geomatics professionals will need to be mindful of that fact that their international competitors are already at work researching and innovating with respect to the Arctic. Understanding this can help them to understand that as they work toward initiatives in the north of Canada, they are also laying the groundwork for developing potential customers in other nations of the north and the Antarctic climates. Potentially this could open the door to farmlands across Russia’s north, transportation systems similarly and the satellite, robotics and navigation products and services that other nations will also require.

The future for geomatics professionals in Canada’s Arctic seems clear. Other nations are already on track to participate in the north. With Canada’s already existing northern knowledge, expertise and capability, the geomatics industry in Canada is situated to fully engage and fully pursue the Arctic future.

More information:

 Sea ice loss in Canada’s north, 1968-2010

What Happens At the Poles: Lowest Arctic Sea Ice on Record

A passage through ice

Norwegian LNG Carrier Chooses Ice over Pirates, Russia Opens Northeast Passage

Building Northern Quebec Together – The Project of a Generation

The Canadian Forces in the North

As ice cap melts, militaries compete for Arctic edge

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