Canada dropping the ozone ball, scientists warn

Leading atmospheric scientists are warning that Canada's cuts to its ozone monitoring program are already having effects on the world's ability to monitor air quality and ozone depletion.
Balloons with instruments attached are used to monitor chemicals such as ozone in the atmosphere. Key scientists involved in a network to do that kind of ozone monitoring have been told their job functions will cease to exist. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Leading atmospheric scientists are warning that Canada's cuts to its ozone monitoring program are already having effects on the world's ability to monitor air quality and ozone depletion.

Five scientists from high-profile U.S. universities and NASA say in a recently-released paper that Canada is jeopardizing the scientific community's ability to monitor for holes in the ozone, especially over the Arctic. They point out that monitoring has already stopped in five locations in Canada and the website that distributed the information has been pulled down.

"Canada is a bellwether for environmental change, not only for Arctic ozone depletion but also for pollutants that stream to North America from other continents," Anne Thompson, a professor of meteorology at Penn State University, said in a release. "It's unthinkable that data collection is beginning to shut down in this vast country."

The five scientists published their paper in Eos, the newsletter of the American Geophysical Union, which represents 61,000 earth and space scientists from around the world.

They point out Canada has been a world leader in keeping an eye on the ozone layer.

Every week since 1966, scientists at 10 stations across the country have released ozone sondes — small white balloons that float into the stratosphere to monitor the state of the earth's protective layer. Those measurements lead to the summer warnings about harmful ultraviolet rays and also track holes in the ozone.

For the past 30 years, Canadian scientists have also measured the soot and pollution that comes from Europe and Asia from fossil fuels and forest fires through a series of observation stations. Those stations are part of the Global Atmosphere Watch Aerosol Lidar Observation Network.

But the scientists say five of those Canadian light detection and ranging (lidar) observation stations have been closed and the CORALnet website that distributed the data has disappeared.

Budget cuts

Environment Canada warned last fall that budget cuts could affect more than 700 scientific and research positions. Last month, it sent out notices to 60 scientists and researchers that they were losing their jobs.

But the authors warn these cuts could affect Canada's contribution to four major international agreements that depend on detailed ozone and atmospheric measurements. They include the Montreal Protocol, signed in 1987 to reduce ozone depletion, and the U.S.-Canada Air Quality Agreement, which was signed in 1988.

They also say the cuts could also affect Canada's Arctic research.

"Canada stands to lose an entire community of highly-respected scientists who are experts on ozone and climate if further proposed cuts go through," said Jennifer Logan, an atmospheric chemist at Harvard University.

But Canadian scientists say they still can't get any concrete information about exactly how all the cuts will affect their work.

Thomas Duck, a professor of atmospheric science at Dalhousie University, was one of first people to sound the alarm about the budget cuts last fall.

He says Environment Canada simply won't tell anyone which monitoring stations have been shut down.

"It's cloaked in secrecy. We really have no concrete information." he said.

Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent has said in the past his department is "streamlining" its core programs, not cutting them. But Environment Canada didn't respond to CBC's request to comment on the most recent warnings from the international scientists.

However, Duck hopes that increased international concern over Canada's scientific obligations may help to convince the government that cutting science jobs could affect people's health and the country's reputation. 

"To have such leading scientists weigh in with their concerns about cuts to Environment Canada shows just how serious the situation is," Duck said.