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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 ...

Considering the infrastructure already in place, it’s possible to imagine an expanded facility that supports a much broader program of research, from ecology to geophysics. Even paleontologists are naturally drawn to the region, known for its fossil finds. In a scientific paper published earlier this week, a team of U.S. researchers describe their latest findings from the celebrated “Tiktaalik” fossil, the bones of a limbed, fish-like creature unearthed on Ellesmere Island a decade ago. It is thought to link land vertebrates to their marine ancestors.

Among the most tantalizing prospects at Eureka is the notion of setting up a major astronomical observatory there. This winter, Eric Steinbring, a physicist with the National Research Council, based in Victoria, visited Eureka to test sky conditions. “There are some clear advantages” for astronomers at Eureka, Dr. Steinbring says. The combination of calm air, darkness and the promise of a high and stable platform on a ridge that sits above the murkiest part of the atmosphere makes the proposition scientifically attractive.

As a location, Eureka is at least as promising as the McMurdo Antarctic station, where the U.S. National Science Foundation carries out an extensive research program involving hundreds of scientists, Dr. Fogel says. What’s missing is any expression of interest from the federal government in a longer-term vision that extends beyond a few years.

Instead, Ottawa is pressing ahead with the $142-million Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) at Cambridge Bay, which lies on the Northwest Passage 1,300 kilometres southwest of Eureka. The government says the facility – scheduled to open in 2017 – will serve as “a world-class hub for science and technology in Canada’s North.” It also lists resource development as the new station’s top priority.

While important research can undoubtedly be pursued at Cambridge Bay, many scientists argue that answers to the most important questions in the Arctic, particularly those concerning atmosphere and climate, can only be found at much higher latitudes. And given the North’s enormity and physical diversity, Prof. Drummond says, it’s clear no one location can provide a complete picture.

Last month, Prof. Drummond, along with other scientists who run 27 permanent research facilities in the Canadian Arctic, formed a new network to push for a more coherent vision for science in the North. Given the long-term environmental changes projected for the region, it’s vital to develop an ongoing research presence, he says. He notes that while PEARL could again face funding uncertainty in 2018, “as long as the climate keeps changing – which it’s doing – then there’s a rationale for continuing to make measurements.”

For Emily McCullough, a Ph.D student at the University of Western Ontario who is working at the lab, its key benefits include the powerful lessons she’s learned about how to do professional research, from planning a major experiment to anticipating problems like “what happens if the wolves come and chew my cables.”

But it’s also a place where she feels the work she does has an impact on Canada’s relationship to the rest of humanity. “Canada’s got a heck of a lot of the Arctic,” Ms. McCullough says. “It would be really great if we could contribute something to the understanding of it as a whole.”

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