Nova Scotia

High Arctic lab once again threatened with closure as federal funding runs out

A unique research lab in the High Arctic is once again facing the possibility of closure, as funding for research at the station is set to run out in September.

PEARL's research on air quality, the ozone layer and climate change could come to an end in September

The PEARL research station on Ellesmere Island has been operating continuously since 2005. (CANDAC/Paul Loewen)

A year and a half after it was saved by interim federal funding, a unique research station in the High Arctic is once again facing the possibility of closure.

The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) has been gathering data and conducting research on Ellesmere Island, just 1,100 kilometres from the North Pole, since 2005.

But researchers at the station were not allocated any additional funding in the most recent federal budget. 

James Drummond, professor emeritus in the department of physics and atmospheric science at Dalhousie University and part of the research team at the station, told CBC Radio's Information Morning that PEARL's funding will run out in September if it can't secure funding through another program.

Atmospheric scientists at the PEARL facility study the ozone, pollution in the atmosphere and climate change. (Paul Loewen/CANDAC)

"We're getting worried, because it takes time to prepare a proposal ... so we need to move now if we're going to get there before September 30th," he said. "Otherwise we'll have to close."

Drummond said researchers at the station focus on atmospheric science — particularly air quality, the ozone layer and climate change.

Yet the research station has been perennially plagued with funding shortfalls over the course of its operation. 

In 2012, the lab came within three weeks of closing due to funding cuts by Stephen Harper's Conservatives before being saved by an eleventh-hour infusion of funding from the Climate Change and Atmospheric Research Initiative (CCAR).

When CCAR funding ran out in 2017, researchers once again faced the possibility of shutting down the station, but were able to keep research and data collection going with a $1.6-million grant from the federal government.

"By investing in the PEARL research network, we'll ensure that the research done in Canada's High Arctic continues to deepen our knowledge of the challenges before us," Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said in a news release at the time. 

The station needs about $1 million a year to keep operating past September 2019. 

Drummond said the lack of additional funding for research at the station in the federal budget wasn't just a disappointment for the researchers who work at PEARL, but also has global implications. 

Jim Drummond, an atmospheric scientist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, says data collected at PEARL's site in the High Arctic is used by researchers the world over. (CBC)

"Researchers throughout the world actually use our research.… We feed data into big databases that people use over the whole world."

And if PEARL is forced to cease operations in September, some of the work — for instance, the series of observations on climate change — will stop as well.

"And that's a problem because, you know, a short series is interesting, but it's not useful," said Drummond.

A spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Canada said in an emailed statement that "support for PEARL contributes to Environment and Climate Change Canada's leading-edge monitoring and research in the Arctic, related to air quality, the ozone layer and climate change."

The statement also read that "Environment and Climate Change Canada will continue to make the PEARL Ridge Laboratory available after September 2019, and researchers are welcome to use it as per current practices."

But Drummond said the availability of the facility itself won't provide everything it needs to keep research going. 

"No, they're not going to blow the building up or lock the door, but we won't have any money to [pay researchers]," he said.

"If we don't have any money to bring people in, that's where there starts to be a problem."