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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.

“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

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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