PEARL Arctic Research Station

The federal government has renewed funding for the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Canada’s high Arctic, one year after the research station in Eureka, Nunavut was shut down.

The government awarded $5-million to PEARL over five years through its granting agency, the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

“It was a big sigh of relief because if we didn’t get the money, my next job would have been dismantling the lab and that would not be a happy job,” said lead PEARL researcher James Drummond in a telephone interview from Germany.

The grant is part of more than $32-million in funding for seven projects announced by the government Friday under NSERC’s Climate Change and Atmospheric Research initiative.  Documents previously released on the granting agency’s website showed the cash infusion for Canada’s northernmost research station was awarded on February 15, 2013.

“Our Government is supporting research related to climate change,” said Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear in a statement. “I am confident that the knowledge generated through these projects will improve the quality of life for all Canadians.”

Located on Ellesmere Island, the lab had been collecting atmospheric measurements on ozone depletion, climate change and air quality since 2005. In 2011, the lab discovered the largest-ever hole in the ozone layer over the Arctic.

Since April 30, 2012, however, the lab located at 80 degrees north latitude has been virtually abandoned, only operating a fraction of the time.

Drummond, a Canada Research Chair in Physics and Atmospheric Science at Dalhousie University, said the equipment was left on automatic settings and the lab’s teams managed to avoid shutting things down completely. “We had a bit of funding from various sources and we scraped by,” he said.  “We’ve been bringing as much as we can back online as of late February.”

PEARL received a grant from NSERC’s Major Resource Support Program and another from the Canadian Space Agency and had some money left from previous grants. Individual Canadians also donated at least $10,000 last year. Drummond said it amounted to about $500,000.

Previously, PEARL researchers had said the lab requires about $1.5-million per year to operate on a full-time basis.

University of Toronto atmospheric physicist Kim Strong said she was “delighted” when she found out about the grant.

“The success of this [funding] proposal was critical for the future of the facility,” said Strong, who conducts research out of the polar lab. “It wasn’t clear what other options we would have after this to secure funding to get PEARL back on track after we had to reduce operations a year ago.”

Drummond said they were able to do the minimum while they waited. “We just managed to keep the lights on and keep the equipment from getting damaged,” he said. “But even now we won’t be able to operate at the same level as previously.”

Environment Minister Peter Kent trumpeted the funding in a statement noting that, “Strong environmental leadership includes strategic investments in science and research.”

Last year when questions were raised about Environment Canada’s financial support for the polar lab, Kent said although he supported the idea of the research station he “didn’t have a million-and-a-half dollars in his back pocket.”

Drummond said the funding won’t be enough for a full-time operator, but they will have enough to operate the equipment remotely, conduct maintenance trips and analyze the data.

researchers in winter coats install instruments on lab roof
Researchers install instrument on roof of PEARL lab in 2008 (Photo: CANDAC).

One team has already gone up to Eureka since the grant was awarded. Another team is planning to go in June. Drummond said they’re now working on a five-year program and that requires a lot of preparation.

“There’s a difference between just keeping things going and having a robust program that can go into the future. It’s not just one measurement; it’s about making measurements over time.”

Several PEARL researchers had previously said the shut-down of the lab would cause significant breaks in the collection of important atmospheric data on greenhouse gases and ozone-related chemicals.

“It means it’s harder to understand what the changes are because you don’t have a continuous record,” said Drummond. “It’s like shooting video versus shooting stills: you get an idea of what’s happening, but you don’t get the full picture.”

Drummond said we need that understanding because the changes that happen in the high Arctic propagate toward the rest of Canada.

In March, Strong told the Toronto Star that she was embarrassed at an international atmospheric science conference in Switzerland last June because of the major gaps in the lab’s data. She said scientists around the world rely on Canada’s data for accurate measurements of changes in the high Arctic.

But now that funding has been mostly restored, Drummond aims to have PEARL fully up and running by the end of the year, just in time for next year’s polar sunrise in mid-February.

“It’s crucial because the atmosphere has been dark and at a certain temperature and chemical condition for about four months,” Drummond said. “It’s the time when the atmosphere changes the fastest.”

It’s also when ozone depletion happens. The PEARL lab was central to the discovery of a massive hole in the ozone layer over the Arctic in early 2011.

“This new funding will enable us to continue to make these measurements and to do the science at a time when conditions in the Arctic are changing rapidly,” said Strong. “The need for such measurements to help us understand long-term trends and atmospheric processes is growing.”

While waiting for the funding to be announced publicly, PEARL scientists have been recruiting post-doctoral researchers through websites online since April 26, which begged the question about the lab’s funding.

Drummond said he doesn’t know why the government waited so long to make the grant public. “I haven’t the faintest idea. I’ve been worrying about getting the lab together more than anything else.”

Strong said she’s pleased that the funding will allow the researchers to bring students and post-docs on board and provide a valuable experience. “At PEARL, they are involved in every stage of the measurement process, from instrument deployment to data collection, numerical analysis and scientific interpretation,” she said.

“I am happy and excited that we can go on with our work,” said Drummond. “When we go to various international meetings, the fact that Canada is doing its part is important for us to demonstrate.”

Last August, Prime Minister Harper announced plans to build the Canada High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut with an investment of nearly $200-million for construction and research. The station will not be up and running until 2017 and is about 1,300 kilometres south of PEARL.