Polar lab closure deals another blow to Canada's scientific reputation

bobmcdonald-190.jpgBy Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks

The announcement this week that the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Lab (PEARL) in Canada's High Arctic will be closed has once again lowered this country's environmental reputation on the world scene.  This is ironic because, also this week, Canada's highest scientific prize, The Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal, was awarded to a scientist who studies climate change.


It's clear that our scientific community appreciates the importance of studying the Earth's changing climate, but the government does not.


PEARL is a unique monitoring station situated at Eureka, 80 degrees north latitude, 1,100 km from the Pole. It is one of only three in the world that keeps track of activities in the atmosphere around the Pole;  the other two are operated by Russia and Denmark.  Just last year, the international network found a record loss of ozone over the Arctic.  


One of the scientists who relies on data from PEARL is Dr. Richard Peltier from the University of Toronto, winner of this year's Herzberg Award.  As you will hear this week on Quirks & Quarks,  Dr. Peltier develops models of the Earth's systems to not only understand changes in the past, but to try to provide indicators of what's to come. But any model is only as good as the real data that backs it up.


In other words, models have to be checked against reality to make sure they reflect the way nature works; otherwise, they are just elaborate guesswork.  That validation has to come from instruments out in the field, such as PEARL, that track the atmosphere year-round. When PEARL closes, one third of the data from the High Arctic will be gone, making the climate models less precise.


The huge mass of cold air around the top of the planet affects the jet stream, which guides weather systems, which affect rainfall distribution, which affects growing seasons, crop productivity, droughts and floods -- the list goes on because everything in the environment is connected to everything else.


Closing our scientific outposts is essentially blinding not only our own scientists, but those from around the world, too, because climate science knows no boundaries.


The cost of running PEARL is about 1.5 million per year. That may sound like a lot, but when you consider the government has spent about $1.5 billion on submarines that still don't work after a decade since we bought them, it's not a lot of money. Especially when you consider the returns.


Canada has some of the top scientists in the world.  They were part of the IPCC team that won the Nobel Prize for climate science in 2007. They are our eyes on the planet - eyes that need to be wide open in order to make important decisions about how we use energy, water and food in the future.


Turning a blind eye to their view is dangerous denial.


It's akin to the captain of the Titanic, after the ship hit the iceberg, saying, "We're not looking at the hole in the hull; let's focus on what's for dinner."