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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 ...

“You can’t just find people like that,” Prof. Duck says. “And you can imagine the damage that this has done to the reputation of Canadian science.”

U.S. collaborators, such as Dr. Uttal, who has instruments in place at Eureka, were also affected. “It was really terrible in my mind, given the investment you have in the instruments and the facilities up there,” she says. “You have to have dedicated on-site operators.”

There is still not enough in the budget to keep an operator at PEARL year-round. The challenge for Prof. Drummond and his colleagues has become finding ways to keep the experiments running even when a human operator isn’t there. That means making the lab more automated, so that it operates like an unmanned spacecraft. The catch is doing it on the cheap by using off-the-shelf parts along with anything else that happens to be close at hand.

Pierre Fogal, a researcher at the University of Toronto and PEARL’s site manager, puts it bluntly: “We’ve become very good at the unorthodox application of what’s here.”

A HUB OF POLAR RESEARCH

Given the resources that other nations have committed to polar research, it would seem obvious for Canada to place a lab in the far North to leverage the scientific potential of its sovereign territory. Yet PEARL came about not as part of a broader national plan but through the efforts of individual scientists trying to avoid losing something that Canadians had already paid for.

In 1992, Environment Canada built and equipped the lab on the ridge as a part of an initiative to better understand the ozone layer, which protects Earth’s surface from much of the harmful ultraviolet radiation emitted by the sun. Ozone was a topic of growing global importance at the time, following the 1985 discovery of an Antarctic ozone hole by British researchers and the linking of ozone depletion to industrial pollutants.

The lab was not created in isolation. It is located 15 kilometres from a much larger facility, the Eureka Weather Station, also operated by Environment Canada. The station has been manned since it was established in 1947 and it currently supplies measurements for weather forecasting and ozone monitoring. During normal operations, the lab relies on the weather station for its infrastructure, including an airstrip, living quarters and a few other amenities like the world’s northernmost Steinway – an old upright brought to Eureka at one point by the U.S. Air Force.

Yet while the lab was productive in its original incarnation, its budget tightened and, after a decade, Environment Canada all but mothballed the facility. “It was a really sad situation,” Prof. Duck says. “For the most part it wasn’t being used.”

After hearing that the lab was to be demolished, a group of academic researchers, including Profs. Drummond and Duck, proposed a university consortium to keep it running. Their bid was successful and, with money from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (a government agency that funds science infrastructure), the lab reopened as PEARL in 2005. Since then, additional buildings and equipment have been brought to the site and the lab’s research agenda has grown to encompass a broader range of themes, including climate change.

PEARL now boasts a diverse array of instruments, including some which sample the atmosphere directly and others which use light to analyze the complex chemistry underway high above. The instruments are complementary and together strengthen scientists’ ability to understand what the atmosphere is doing. This, along with the technical support that PEARL provides, has made the site attractive for international collaborators.

All told, the science done at PEARL has resulted in about 100 scientific papers. In the spring of 2011, the lab was perfectly positioned to study a vast ozone hole that opened up over the Arctic – the first event of that magnitude to be seen in the North.

Recent media coverage portraying PEARL as the victim of a government at odds with science – especially climate science – has overshadowed the fact that Canada could be doing much, much more at Eureka.

REACHING FOR THE SKY

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