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The Polar Environmental Atmospheric Research Laboratory, a premier facility for atmospheric monitoring in the high Arctic, sees no direct sunlight between late October and late February. (PIERRE FOGAL)
The Polar Environmental Atmospheric Research Laboratory, a premier facility for atmospheric monitoring in the high Arctic, sees no direct sunlight between late October and late February. (PIERRE FOGAL)

THE NORTH

How Canada’s Arctic lab keeps a watchful eye on climate change Add to ...

This is part of The North, a Globe investigation into the unprecedented change to the climate, culture and politics of Canada’s last frontier. Join the conversation with #GlobeNorth.

Seen from the air, in the soft glow of Arctic twilight, Canada’s premier platform for climate science in the North looks like a wayward shoebox perched high on a snowy ridge.

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The place is called PEARL – the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory – and its choice position overlooking Eureka on Ellesmere Island offers a window on the mechanics of climate change in the part of the planet where its effects are most immediate and acute.

“There are just so few stations in the high Arctic,” says Jim Drummond, a professor of atmospheric science at Dalhousie University and PEARL’s principal investigator. “We could put one further south and it would be useful, but not as useful.”

For all the frigid challenges that come with doing science near the top of the world, the biggest chill PEARL faces involves financing. In 2012, the Harper government, while touting its commitment to the Arctic, canned the lab’s funding source, the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science, provoking an outcry from scientists both within Canada and internationally. Although a measure of funding was restored in the latest federal budget – $1-million a year for the next five years, or about two-thirds of what PEARL used to receive – the interruption came as a damaging blow to the lab. “We lost pretty well a whole summer of observation of atmospheric composition,” Prof. Drummond says. “Anything that couldn’t be run automatically was run very intermittently.”

PEARL is now in recovery mode, still ramping back up to its former level of activity. Currently, researchers are focused on observing the polar sunrise, a critical period when the high Arctic emerges from months of darkness and scientists can study important but fleeting changes that shed light on climate.

Overall, researchers at PEARL study a broad range of atmospheric phenomena, from cloud physics to ozone depletion to the industrial pollutants that migrate to the region. At 80 degrees north, the lab is close enough to the North Pole to provide a genuine snapshot of the high Arctic atmosphere, including four months every winter when there is no direct sunlight. Scientists are studying the Arctic winter, when the latest evidence suggests much of the warming occurs.

Most importantly for the rest of the world, PEARL is centred within a vast Canadian sector of the high Arctic that would otherwise go unmonitored if it wasn’t there. While stations in Alaska, Scandinavia and Russia are providing similarly important data, PEARL is recognized internationally as an essential link in the chain.

“Countries need to co-ordinate so that we can really get a handle on what’s going on in the Arctic,” says Taneil Uttal, a climatologist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, based in Boulder, Colo. “Otherwise we’re all like blind men holding on to different pieces of the elephant.”

Without funding in 2012, however, the lab lost the operators it had hired and trained to keep the experiments running year-round. Observations were made piecemeal rather than in continuous fashion, which reduced the confidence level of international researchers counting on PEARL’s data. The problem, Prof. Drummond says, is that when there’s a break in observations and something changes in the interim, it can be difficult to know if the change reflects something that’s really happened to the atmosphere or just a random shift in the equipment while it was switched off.

Research universities across the country felt the consequences. Tom Duck, an atmospheric physicist at Dalhousie University, led a group of more than eight research and technical staff to build a lidar system, which uses a powerful laser beam to measure the composition of the Arctic atmosphere by analyzing the light reflected back from assorted molecules and particles many kilometres in the air. They are trying to deteremine whether clouds are cooling or warming the atmosphere. Suddenly, Prof. Duck found his entire team gone but for one person. Many of those who left have since taken their expertise outside of Canada.

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