Environment Minister Catherine McKenna needs to engage personally
Michael Byers, Special to Nunatsiaq News, 18 July 2016
On Oct. 6, 2011, the Arctic was cut off from the rest of Canada for 16 hours.
A software glitch on a satellite caused 56 communities to lose internet and long-distance telephone service. Businesses and government offices shut down; dozens of flights were cancelled.
The outage was not a surprise. Arctic communications are currently provided from satellites in geostationary orbit, directly above the equator — at the limits, and sometimes beyond, the required direct line of sight. Connectivity is slow, expensive and unreliable.
The Harper government responded to the outage by supporting a bold and visionary plan that the Canadian Space Agency, Environment Canada and Department of National Defence had jointly developed.
The Polar Communications and Weather Project proposed to place two satellites in polar orbits, where they would provide continuous broadband service across the Arctic. This would “enhance the connectivity of high‐northern communities to the broadband information backbone infrastructure,” as well as the Canadian military’s ability to operate in the region.
The satellites would also be equipped with weather imaging equipment. The resulting improvements in weather forecasting would “support the viability and safety of growing air and marine traffic” in a remote and often stormy region.
They would also fulfill an international commitment, made by Canada in 2010, to provide marine weather forecasting across the top of North America, including Alaska, all the way up to the North Pole.
The same imaging equipment would support scientific efforts to understand the central role of the Arctic in global climate change.
The satellites would also be equipped to monitor solar flares, which can disrupt electric power grids, GPS systems and aircraft radio communications.
The risks from solar flares are especially high in the Arctic, because the protection provided by the Earth’s magnetic fields is weakest there.
Canada’s three largest space companies — MDA, Telesat and COM DEV — formed a consortium in anticipation of a tendering process.
Their “made-in-Canada solution” aimed to “stimulate innovation and high value jobs.”
Everything seemed to be proceeding well, until last month, when the Department of National Defence’s director of space requirements pronounced the Polar Communications and Weather Project “dead”.
Speaking at a conference in Virginia, Colonel Jeff Dooling explained that his department now plans to proceed on its own, without the Canadian Space Agency or Environment Canada.
Two satellites will still be launched into polar orbits, but they will be equipped for communications purposes only, and used primarily by the military.
The military will likely operate the satellites in conjunction with a private company, which could perhaps market any unused bandwidth to northern residents and businesses.
But unlike the Polar Communications and Weather Project, public access to broadband would not be assured.
Under the new plan, the satellites will not be equipped to support weather forecasting, climate change science, or the monitoring of solar flares.
These reductions in capabilities could limit northern economic development, the safety of northern residents and visitors, research on climate change, and Canada’s ability to fulfill its marine weather forecasting commitment.
The reductions are due to a recent decision by Environment Canada to withhold its portion of the funding for the Polar Communications and Weather Project, which amounted to about $10 million per year over the 15-year projected lifespan of the satellites.
It was this decision that killed the multi-departmental project and forced the Department of National Defence to move forward on its own.
Fortunately, there is still time to reverse this serious mistake.
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, who understands the importance of accurate weather forecasts and strong science, needs to engage personally with the Arctic satellite file.
If the Canadian government is going to build and launch Arctic satellites, it should do so — first and foremost — for northerners.
Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.