Scientists caution against ozone monitoring cuts

Three leading Canadian atmospheric scientists are urging MPs and senators to think very carefully before they agree to cuts to ozone monitoring in Canada.
Scientists say an unusually prolonged period of extremely low temperatures in a part of the atmosphere called the stratosphere caused a record ozone loss over the Arctic. (Beth Ipsen/Arctic Sounder/Associated Press)

Three leading Canadian atmospheric scientists are urging MPs and senators to think very carefully before they agree to cuts to ozone monitoring in Canada.

Prof. Thomas Duck, an expert in polar atmospheric research at Dalhousie University in Halifax, was one of the scientists who met over breakfast with 30 MPs and senators Tuesday in Ottawa to talk about Canada's role in monitoring the ozone layer and to explain the surprise discovery of a huge hole over the Arctic.

"Our visit comes at a time when the government is considering cuts to Environment Canada that will impact programs that  protect the health and safety of Canadians," Duck told journalists after the breakfast.

Scientists discovered a hole in the Arctic's ozone layer for the first time in March. The ozone is located high in the atmosphere over the Earth and acts as sunscreen for harmful radiation that can cause skin cancer and harm crops.

Duck, along with professors Gordon Shepherd, an expert in earth and space science from Toronto's York University, and Kaley Walker, one of the scientists who discovered the Arctic ozone hole, told the parliamentarians that possible cuts to Environment Canada could hinder Canada's ability to monitor changes to the ozone layer.

Duck said the majority of questions from politicians at the breakfast were about the ozone hole.

"I think a major thing that was learned is that the issue of ozone depletion is not a solved problem, said Duck.

"We certainly understand a lot of things, but the discovery of the Arctic ozone hole really came as a surprise, it was not anticipated ... and this past March and April there it was."

Scientists don't really know why the Arctic ozone hole appeared. They think it could be linked to climate change, where warmer temperatures near the ground keep temperatures colder in the upper atmosphere. Those cold temperatures mixed with some chemicals destroy the ozone.

Ozone levels have been fluctuating over Antarctic for decades, but this is the first time it's happened over the Northern Hemisphere, where more people live.

This latest discovery comes at a time when more than 760 people at Environment Canada are waiting to hear about their jobs. The employees were sent letters in the summer warning their positions could be eliminated as part of overall government cuts. They include scientists who run the ozone monitoring.

Duck said the message to the MPs and senators Tuesday was to not rush into cuts.

"We are very concerned about proposed changes that we are hearing to environmental monitoring efforts at Environment Canada. We'd ask they consider these things very, very carefully and  also consult broadly on that particularly with members of the international community," he said.

Ozone monitoring uses Canadian inventions

Canada is an international leader in ozone monitoring.

Environment Canada scientists invented crucial instruments that are used worldwide to measure ozone. They also invented the UV index which indicates the strength of the sun's rays. It's now used by 30 countries around the world. This country also played host to the Montreal protocol in 1987, where 192 countries agreed to eliminate CFCs, industrial chemicals that destroy the ozone.

Environment Minister Peter Kent has said in the past his department is streamlining as part of the government's overall spending review and that no decision has been made yet about jobs.

Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan, who organized the meeting between the scientists and politicians, wants to help the government rethink its approach.

"These cuts could have a long-term effect, we have to think carefully because [otherwise] this scientific expertise will be lost."