Canadian scientists fight to save key climate change science lab in High Arctic

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Instruments travel to PEARL for satellite validation campaigns such as that held in support of Canada’s Atmospheric Chemistry Experiment (ACE) every polar sunrise from 2004 to this one in 2008, and beyond. Here the ground-based version of the ACE MAESTRO instrument is installed on a sun tracker under the supervision of Environment Canada’s Tom McElroy, MAESTRO PI with the able assistance of Clive Midwinter and Mareile Wolff, both from the University of Toronto. (Pierre Fogal/CANDAC)
A group of Canadian scientists is mobilizing public support to once again save Canada’s northernmost research laboratory from being mothballed for the lack of federal funding.

The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Eureka, Nunavut, about 1,110 kilometres south of the North Pole, is about to run out of funding to continue its research into key atmospheric data, said James Drummond, professor of atmospheric physics at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

Located at the latitude of 80 degrees north, more than 4,000 kilometres north of Toronto, PEARL is able to do research that no other lab in Canada can, said Drummond.

“Eureka is almost as far north on Canada as you can go,” Drummond said. “We are the most northerly civilian research lab within Canada.”

Key atmospheric and climate research
The Ridge Lab of PEARL, the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL). Located on Ellesmere Island at Eureka, Nunavut (80N, 86W), PEARL is managed by the Canadian Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Change (CANDAC). (Mareile Wolff/CANDAC)

The lab’s research focuses on three main areas: ozone depletion, air quality and climate change.

“We know that the climate in the Arctic is moving much faster than it is on the rest of the planet and we’re in a very good position that far north to be able to look at the effects of climate change on the long term,” Drummond said. “That does require long-term presence and taking data over many-many years, even decades to do the job properly.”

For the last 4.5 years, the operation of the lab has been paid for under a funding program that was started by the previous Conservative government, called the Canadian Climate and Atmospheric Research Program (CCAR), Drummond said.

PEARL, which receives about $1 million a year, is one of seven science projects funded under CCAR, he said.

In addition to that, PEARL receives “in kind” support from the Department of Environment and Climate Change Canada and the Canadian Space Agency, Drummond said.

“We don’t think the request to continue the station is in any sense controversial or unreasonable,” Drummond said. “This station has been operating in this form since 2006 and in a different form since the 1990s.”

‘Highly regarded around the world’
The cornerstone of PEARL is the Ridge Laboratory. This iconic red building was built in 1992-93 by Environment Canada and operated as the Arctic Stratospheric Ozone observatory (AStrO) until 2002 when it was mothballed due to lack of funding. It was revitalized in its present form when a collaboration between university researchers and government departments, the Canadian Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Change (CANDAC), undertook its operation in 2005. (Paul Loewen/CANDAC)

The PEARL laboratory is very highly regarded around the world, Drummond said.

“Everywhere I go people want to know how’s the work there going,” he said. “It’s one of the very-very few in number – you can pretty well count them on one hand – of facilities that high up in the Arctic making measurements.”

The lab is also one of the few facilities that operates during the polar night as well as the polar day, he said.

Gathering support

The scientists working at PEARL – about 20 to 30 researchers from nine universities across Canada – have been talking to federal officials at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) convince them to continue funding the lab.

A year ago, NSERC actually put in an application to the Treasury Board asking to renew funding for PEARL, but that request was denied, Drummond said.

Evidence for Democracy (E4D), a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization promoting the transparent use of evidence in government decision-making in Canada, has launched an online petition to try to convince the government to come up with new funding.

“The reality is you can either operate this laboratory or not,” Drummond said. “You can’t operate half of the laboratory, you can’t heat half of the building, you have to heat all the building.”

The loss of that $1 million funding means that scientists will have to mothball the facility sometime in the spring of 2018, Drummond said.

A political dejavue?
In this 2007 photo, Dragan Veselinovic (left), a University of New Brunswick graduate student, and Stephen Brown, research associate at York University, working on a hatch cover on the roof of the PEARL Ridge Lab. (Paul Loewen/CANDAC)

This isn’t the first time a funding shortfall has threatened the future of PEARL.

In 2012, cuts under the Conservative government of then Prime Minister Stephen Harper saw researchers come within 20 days of beginning a shutdown of the laboratory, until last-minute funding came through from the Climate Change and Atmospheric Research Initiative (CCAR), CBC News reported.

One of the more vocal proponents to try to save PEARL at the time was Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan, who now holds the Science portfolio in the federal cabinet.

“This is a government that has a war on science, a war on the environment,” Duncan declared in the House of Commons on Oct. 29, 2012, referring to the Conservative cuts.

“The government has cut the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory in the far North, which looks at ozone, at climate change. This year we have had the greatest melting, ever, of sea ice in the High Arctic. Last year, an ozone hole was discovered that was two million square kilometres.

“Why would the government cut a research station at a time when major environmental changes are taking place?”

‘Cold War on science’
Rebecca Batchelor, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto, checks the alignment of the suntracker on the roof of the Ridge Lab of PEARL, the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory. This suntracker follows the sun to direct light into the Fourier transform spectrometer (FTS) in the lab below, where absorption features in the solar spectrum are used to study the quantity and location of a range of trace gases in the atmosphere. (Ashley Harrett/CANDAC)

Matt Generoux, the Conservative Party’s shadow cabinet member responsible for the science portfolio, said he has been left wondering “where all the passion that Minister Duncan had while in opposition for maintaining PEARL has suddenly gone.”

“In our 2011 budget, our government created the Climate Change and Atmospheric Research Initiative (CCAR),” Generoux said in a statement to Radio Canada International. “In 2012, the CCAR ensured funding for the PEARL station until 2017.”

The Liberal government has had plenty of time to plan for the continued funding of PEARL if they were genuinely interested in making the laboratory a priority, Generoux said.

Kennedy Stewart, the science critic for the New Democratic Party, said the issue of PEARL’s funding is rather emblematic of the Liberal approach to science funding in general.

“I’d say we have moved from a ‘war on science’ under the Conservatives to a ‘Cold War on science’ under the Liberals,” Stewart said in a phone interview with Radio Canada International.

Government personnel records show that the federal government under the Trudeau Liberals employs five per cent fewer scientists than under the Harper Conservatives when there were about 40,000 scientists on Ottawa’s payroll, Stewart said.

The proportion of the overall budget spent on science and technology is also lower under Trudeau than it was under Harper, Stewart said.

“So we’re having a steady erosion of both personnel and funding,” Stewart said. “However, the only thing that is different is that Harper and his ministers were openly hostile to scientists, where Trudeau and his ministers are hugging us.”

Stewart said the PEARL file will be a key test for the Liberal government.

“Kirsty Duncan fought for PEARL all the way through the last government and now she’s in charge of the funding and she can’t find the small amount of money to keep it open,” Stewart said.   

‘Comprehensive approach’
Science Minister Kirsty Duncan answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Tuesday, April 11, 2017. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Duncan was not available for an interview Monday but officials from her office dismissed  opposition jabs.

“Our government is doing more to combat climate change than any federal government in history,” officials said in a statement to Radio Canada International.

The Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has signed the Paris Accord and worked with the provinces and territories on a Pan-Canadian framework to address climate change, including putting a price on carbon pollution, officials said.

“Budget 2017 announced the creation of a new Canadian Centre for Climate Services to improve access to foundational climate science and we look forward to the opening of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) which will help ensure Canada remains a world leader in Arctic science,” the statement said.

While the CCAR program has reached the end of its funding cycle, there is ongoing annual funding for the operation of the PEARL facility and the work of researchers continues to be funded into 2018, it said.

Officials are also working with researchers to find other avenues of support, including through the approximately $50 million in climate change research that NSERC funds annually, the statement said.

“The previous government used CCAR as a one-off to climate change research but Arctic research deserves more than that,” the statement said. “Our government knows we need a thoughtful, comprehensive approach to Arctic research, one that includes Indigenous voices and the role of traditional knowledge.”

CHARS is no substitute for PEARL
In this 2007 photo (left to right), Roberta Perkins, Dainis Nams and Stephanie Flynn (all Dalhousie
Undergraduate summer students) with James Drummond are taking a break at the 80N line on the way to the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research
Laboratory (PEARL). (James Drummond/CANDAC)

It is impossible to do the kind of research performed at PEARL in Eureka at CHARS in Cambridge Bay, some 1,300 kilometres south, Drummond said.

“The distance between Cambridge Bay and Eureka is roughly the distance between Montreal and Atlanta, Georgia,” Drummond said.

“Measurements made in Cambridge Bay are fine, we have no quarrel with CHARS making measurements in Cambridge Bay, we think it’s a great idea but they don’t substitute for measurements made up 80 degrees North in the very High Arctic anymore than you would accept measurements made in Atlanta, Georgia were the things that you need to figure out what’s going in Montreal, Quebec.”

With files from Nick Murray of CBC News

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Levon Sevunts, Radio Canada International

Levon Sevunts, Radio Canada International

For more news from around the world visit Radio Canada International.

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