Canada losing its Arctic PEARL

The Polar Environmental Atmospheric Research Laboratory at the northern tip of Ellesmere Island as it emerged out of months of winter darkness in early March. The station, one of the world’s premier observatories for tracking the health of Arctic atmosphere, but has run out of money because of cuts to climate science programs. Photo credit Pierre Fogal

Sat Mar 24 2012  Vancouver Sun

By Margaret Munro

Atmospheric scientist Pierre Fogal headed north in February to help check on Earth’s protective ozone layer high in the Arctic stratosphere.

But he spent much of his time on his knees dealing with burst water pipes and frozen sewer lines at Canada’s beleaguered Arctic research station.

Then this week, the electrical system malfunctioned, says Fogal, site manager for PEARL, the Polar Environmental Atmospheric Research Laboratory at the northern tip of Ellesmere Island.

The station, now limping along at half power and a chilly 10 C inside, is one of the world’s premier observatories for tracking the health of the Arctic atmosphere. The station houses millions of dollars worth of scientific equipment used to monitor the ozone layer, greenhouse gases and pollution swirling around the polar vortex.

But it has been a bad year. Unusually frigid weather has taken a big toll on the station’s plumbing and power system, and the chilly financial wind blowing out of Ottawa has left PEARL in dire financial straits.

Federal grants that have kept the station running continuously since 2005 have run out, forcing the science team that runs PEARL to shut it down, at least temporarily.

With no money for salaries, the station’s three operators were let go in December.

And on April 5, the two researchers now at the station collecting one last batch of atmospheric data will turn off the lights.

The public – after learning of PEARL’S financial woes last month – has donated $12,000 to help keep the station going.

“People really want to help out,” says Dawn Conway, executive director the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, who has been collecting the donations for the lab. The donors range from students who “believes in PEARL” to grandparents donating for the sake of their grandchildren.

The federal government has not, however, opened its chequebook, to the dismay of leading scientists.

“I think it is absolutely outrageous both on environmental and financial grounds,” Richard Peltier, of the University of Toronto, says of the federal government’s inability to come up with the $1.5 million a year to keepPEARL operating year round.

“For goodness sake, they put upwards of $10 million of instrumentation into the laboratory up there,” says Peltier, an atmospheric physicist, who in February was awarded the Herzberg Gold Medal, Canada’s top science prize.

“To shut it down after not many years of operation makes no sense at all,” says Peltier.

In what Peltier describes as a “catastrophe for the country,” the government has refused to provide new funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, one of the main funders of PEARLand many other university-based programs.

CFCAS has awarded $119 million for research on climate, atmospheric and oceanographic sciences to university researchers across Canada since 2000.

The projects, on everything from extreme weather to Prairie drought have now wound down – “just at a time when we require more intense, not less intense, research,” says Peltier, noting that the loss of CFCAS has “strongly diminished” the country’s ability to assess what the future will be like.

Peltier and his colleagues say the funding drought has not only stalled research and jeopardized the Arctic lab, but it is prompting highly trained and valuable scientists and technical staff to leave Canada.

“We’re bleeding people,” says Peltier.

The most notable is Ted Shepherd, a celebrated atmospheric researcher at the University of Toronto, who has taken a new job at Britain’s University of Reading.

Shepherd says Reading made he and his wife an irresistible offer. Two jobs – one for him and one for her – in climate science.

Britain is cutting spending in many areas because of the economic crisis but has protected funding for environmental science, says Shepherd.

It’s a refreshing change from what he describes as the “pretty gloomy” situation in Canada. The demise of CFCAS, and other changes to federal science funding, has left few opportunities for scientists wanting to pursue fundamental climate and atmospheric science.

“In Canada, I think a lot of these cuts are for political reasons,” says Shepherd. “It’s not really budgetary at the end of the day, it’s a choice.”

Shepherd and his graduate students have spent almost 18 years and several million dollars developing and running the Canadian Middle Atmosphere Model, which can predict how the ozone layer and other constituents of the middle atmosphere behave under different scenarios. He was also a significant contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which co-won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

“It’s a huge loss for Canada,” atmospheric physicist Kimberly Strong, at the University of Toronto, says of Shepherd’s departure.

She has also been saying goodbye to plenty of young researchers who have been taking advantage of a $1.65-million federal initiative to train Arctic atmospheric scientists.

With few job opportunities with Environment Canada or at Canadian universities, Strong says many of the graduates are taking positions at labs in the U.S. and Europe.

“We are training these students and they’re being snapped up elsewhere,” says Strong, rattling off a list of PhD graduates now working in Europe and the U.S.

“A lot of them would like to come home,” says Strong, who has her “fingers crossed” the situation in Canada will turn around.

The plan for PEARL is to leave most of its 27 scientific instruments in place. “As long as it stays modestly warm and dry, they’ll be OK,” says Fogal.

The scientists hope to visit the station periodically for short “science campaigns” until they can find money to keep it going year round.

Strong’s team has four instruments at PEARL. They measure water vapour, greenhouse gases, ozone chemistry and the transportation of pollutants in the atmosphere.

A couple of the instruments can be set to work remotely but her “workhorse” – a state-of-the-art infrared spectrometer – cannot. “That’s a big loss for me,”‘ says Strong, of the $300,000 spectrometer that has been measuring gases in the atmosphere from February to October since it was installed in July 2006.

She says someone needs to be at PEARL to turn on the “sun tracker” that guides the spectrometer and open a slot in the roof to give it a clear view of the atmosphere.

Strong now has to explain to her international colleagues why Canada will no longer be supplying data to the three different global research programs using her data. “It gives Canada a real black eye,” says Strong. She hopes the hiatus will be short-lived.

Since Canadian taxpayers have already invested in the station’s building and equipment, Strong says “it seems like a no-brainer to keep PEARL going.”

James Drummond at Dalhousie University, who heads the science team that runs PEARL, has been making similar arguments in Ottawa and would be thrilled to see $1.5 million for PEARL in next week’s budget.

“What would be really nice is a line item in the budget papers to support PEARL,” says Drummond, who doubts that is possible without “political connections.”

The “best shot” he suspects is to try to access the $35 million that was earmarked in last year’s budget for climate change and atmospheric research over the next five years.

Twelve months later the scientific community has yet to see a penny of the money. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council says it has been working with Environment Canada on “implementing this initiative announced in Budget 2011” and is expected to finally announce details on Monday.

The PEARL team would have to compete with other researchers across the country who are also hungry for cash. Given the way such competitionswork, they don’t expect money from the $35-million fund to be awarded before 2013.

“I hope it’s collecting interest while it’s sitting there,” says Peltier.

All of which leaves Fogal, who is not assured a pay cheque after next week, trying to figure out how best to deal with the electrical problem that has now reduced PEARL to about half power.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if it cost about $40,000 to repair,” says Fogal, explaining how an electrician would have to be flown in on a charter plane along with the necessary parts.

“If you knew what the future was you would jump right in there with both feet and fix it, and you’d do it right now,” Fogal says. “But because we don’t know what the situation is, nobody want really wants to jump in.”

© Copyright (c) Postmedia News


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