For the fourth time in history, scientists from around the world gathered together to discuss the research achievements of the International Polar Year (IPY) – this time with a conference in Montreal April 23-27.

The most recent International Polar Year, running from March 2007 to March 2009 (to accommodate the 18 months required to properly monitor a polar cycle), was the fourth gathering of international scientists and social scientists brought together by their shared interest in the Arctic region.

The Arctic is an area that borders on many nations, and its shared concerns are far too large for any country to investigate on its own. As a result, the IPY is an opportunity for researchers from around the world to work together on projects relating to ecology, geography, geology, astronomy and many more issues that touch the lives of the people and wildlife that live in the North.

The three previous IPYs took place between 1882 and 1883, 1932 and 1933, and 1957 and 1958. However, this most recent Polar Year was the largest to date and also the first to take place during a period of climate change.

This was also the first Polar Year to include an Indigenous Knowledge Exchange, in which over 220 First Nations and Inuit peoples from the regions of the circumpolar North – including Canada, the US, Russia, Greenland and northern Scandinavia – participated in discussions around such issues as wildlife and land use, food security and health, youth issues, climate change, and the involvement of Indigenous peoples in Arctic research. The products of the exchange were represented at the IPY conference by nine sessions, including roundtable discussions with Indigenous leaders and youth leaders, as well as the screenings of three films.

A huge number of researchers, scholars, scientists and government agents came together in Montreal to hear presentations and discussions of the results of IPY research. While 10,000 scientists and 50,000 other people from 60 countries participated in the Polar Year project itself, at least 3,000 were on hand in Montreal to present and consider their work and findings.

Concordia Environmental Cultural Studies PhD candidate Shirley Roburn – a former director of the Yukon Conservation Society – said the conference was immense. “Canada alone invested over $100-million in the Polar Year projects, but so did most countries. It’s a way for Arctic and Polar scientists and social scientists from around the world to work together and make connections on a much larger scale than would normally happen.”

Roburn was there to present a paper that she had co-written with members of the Yukon’s Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, one of two First Nations that ran their own IPY projects. Their paper, “Traditional Knowledge and Climate Change in Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Traditional Territory”, considered the effects of climate change on northern Aboriginal people and took stock of traditional knowledge that could be used in adapting to changes to the natural environment.

Roburn recommended a variety of other IPY projects, particularly the documentary film, “People of a Feather”, by director Joel Heath, about the effects of climate change on the Inuit community of Sanikiluaq and the eider ducks its people have traditionally depended on. More than simply about climate change itself, however, the film considers the role of hydro-electric dams – like those in Eeyou Istchee – in causing alarming changes to sea ice and ocean currents.

As well, Roburn recommended the work of Don Russell of the CircumArctic Rangifer Monitoring and Assessment Network (CARMA) – a complicated name for an organization of scientists and community members that tracks and maintains information about the world’s reindeer and caribou herds.

Reached in the Yukon, Russell said his experience at the IPY was also a good one.

“It’s a larger venue than I’m used to,” he explained, “and it’s encouraging to see all the science that’s going on and the strides forward in understanding the Arctic systems.”

On the subject of caribou, Russell said the two large herds that inhabit the Ungava Peninsula, the George River and Leaf River herds, took the longest time to decline in numbers. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, caribou herds around the world dropped in population, some as much as 80%, though they are growing in number once more.

“In the last four or five years,” Russell said, “we’ve seen most of these herds either stabilize or turn around. They move on a 40-50 year cycle. All these herds were low in the 1970s, they peaked out in the 1990s, and then they started going down again. If you just focus on your own herd, you see these declining numbers and start to worry. It’s good to step back and see whether other people in other jurisdictions are seeing the same thing. But the encouraging thing is that a lot of the herds that really declined earlier are starting to turn around.”

Russell said the IPY conference was so big that it was hard to keep track of what was going on some of the time, especially when there were 10 sessions taking place in each time slot.

“But certainly,” he said, “a lot of the people who attended my presentation were quite positive that this initiative – to form a network to see how these changes are impacting herds on a global scale – is a valuable contribution to understanding and managing these trends.”

Next up, CARMA will look to the future as they attempt to determine the best way to manage caribou and reindeer herds in times of abundance so that they won’t grow to such great numbers that they begin to die off. It’ll be a big job, but it most likely wouldn’t even be possible at all without the international framework of the IPY in place to make it happen.