High Arctic research station forced to close

Canada's northernmost research laboratory is shutting down due to lack of funding.

PEARL played a key role in ozone measurements, international collaborations

Canada's northernmost research laboratory is shutting down due to lack of funding.

The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Eureka, Nunavut, which made key measurements last winter used to detect and analyze the largest ozone hole ever detected over the Arctic, will cease year-round operations on April 30. At that time, its equipment will be removed and the building will remain available only for intermittent, short-term projects.

The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory is located at Eureka, Nunavut on Ellesmere Island, at a latitude of 80 degrees north. (CANDAC)

"When you run out of money, there's no alternative but to close the lab," Jim Drummond, a Dalhousie University researcher who is the principal investigator for PEARL, said Tuesday.

The station has been tracking ozone depletion, air quality and climate change in the High Arctic since 2005. But the Canadian Network for Detection of Atmospheric Change, an informal network of university researchers that runs the station, hasn't been able to secure the $1.5 million annual funding required to continue running the station all year round.

That is largely due to the discontinuation of government funding to the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, which had been covering three-quarters of the station's costs, and the end to the International Polar Year program.

Drummond said the network has since applied for various government funding programs and has been turned down for all of them, despite the government's frequent assertion that the Arctic is a priority for Canada.

'Shutting it down causes a big gap in the measurements. We're losing the ability to know what's going on up there."— Jim Drummond

PEARL is the biggest lab in Canada's High Arctic and, at 80 degrees north latitude, one of the closest in the world to the North Pole.

"Shutting it down causes a big gap in the measurements," Drummond said. "We're losing the ability to know what's going on up there."

Many environmental changes happening on a global scale, such as many related to climate, are occurring first in the Arctic, he said, adding "this is an early warning system that we're letting go."

The network said it is trying to pursue funding for short-term research campaigns that would keep the station running for part of the year. In the meantime, it is making intermittent scientific measurements in the summer.

However, an end to year-round operations means the station can no longer take measurements during the polar night — the prolonged, weeks-long darkness of the Arctic winter — and contribute the data it has been collecting for international measurements of aerosols, atmospheric composition and carbon.

'Essential' measurements

Matthias Schneider, a German researcher who leads a global network that uses data from around the world to understand atmospheric water cycle and its role in climate, said PEARL's closure will eliminate a "unique set" of High Arctic measurements "essential" to the global effort.

University of Toronto researcher Kimberly Strong said the end to those and other measurements come "just as our need for high-quality data in the changing Arctic is becoming ever more important."

The closure could also scuttle plans for a polar telescope and magnetic observatory at the site.

The government is expected to set up a new High Arctic research station 1,300 kilometres south of PEARL in Cambridge Bay. However, that won't happen until 2017, and because it is so much farther south, Drummond doesn't think it would be able to make up for the loss of PEARL.

Environment  Minister Peter Kent points out that his department does provide some direct support  worth about $250,000 toward the polar lab's $1.5-million annual budget. But he says the scientists failed to get grants for the rest of the money needed to keep it going. 

"We certainly continue to support the concept of PEARL, but I certainly as minister of Environment Canada do not have a million and a half dollars in my back pocket," Kent said.

With files from Margo McDiarmid