Closing the gap on atmospheric data

PEARL gets new funding

- May 28, 2013

James Drummond, PEARL project lead. (Danny Abriel photo)
James Drummond, PEARL project lead. (Danny Abriel photo)

It’s hard to keep a secret, especially when it’s good news. James Drummond, professor in the Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science, had to keep mum until NSERC made the official announcement that the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) will receive new funding. Once the media found it on the NSERC website, the calls started coming in.

Dr. Drummond, also Canada Research Chair in Remote Sounding of Atmospheres, had to field some of these calls while in transit in Germany, including one from Carol Off of the CBC evening radio show, As It Happens.

In that interview, Dr. Drummond noted that the PEARL station, located in Eureka, Nunavut, will receive a total of $5 million over five years, or about $1 million per year. This sum, however, is short the $1.5 million per year that PEARL had been receiving, prior to the announcement that funding to the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (through which PEARL received its funding) would not be renewed.

What this reduction means to PEARL’s operations is that there will be “no full-time operator on site,” explains Dr. Drummond. “We’ll still travel to the station, but there will be no permanent person.” In fact, keeping the station operating full time involves three or four people sharing the duties, taking into account vacations and the inherent difficulty of living in the north.

Dr. Drummond and the PEARL team – a collective of Canadian researchers and agencies known as the Canadian Network for Detection of Atmospheric Change (CANDAC) – are hoping this will be only temporary. “The difficulty is getting the resources needed to keep it running,” he says. “But once that happens, then you can talk about applying for additional funding.”

Regardless, Dr. Drummond says PEARL will continue to provide valuable data about the Arctic atmosphere. Historically, little data has been gathered from the Arctic, in part because of the harsh climate, making research done at the PEARL station all the more important.

On top of – or right under – atmospheric events

In addition to gathering day-to-day data about the atmosphere, PEARL also documents “events” in the Arctic region that can have larger significance when looked at in a broader context. “The big event of the last five years was the ozone depletion in 2011,” Dr. Drummond states, referring to a two-million-square-kilometre hole, the largest yet. “We were operating right under it.”

Being there when an event starts is key to gathering a complete data set. “You can’t wait until [these events] happen – by the time you’ve made the arrangements to get there, the event will be over,” he explains. “An ozone hole lasts about a month, so if you waited till it happened, you’d have missed pretty much all of it.”

It might be surprising to some that ozone holes are still an issue. The Montreal Protocol, an agreement signed by 197 UN countries, was implemented in 1989 to reduce the number of ozone-depleting chemicals, such as chlorofluorocarbons, released into the atmosphere. And it’s true that CFCs have been phased out. But once in the atmosphere, these chemicals break down very slowly and can have long-term repercussions.

Projects like PEARL, says Dr. Drummond, help monitor the effectiveness of the Montreal Protocol and other climate change legislation. “We want the ozone to recover, so we have to ensure it’s happening,” he explains.

The link between climate change, ozone depletion and pollution

“Ozone depletion can sound alarming, but a singular event like [the one in 2011] is not indicative of anything in particular.” However, “A series of events would make us tend to think that we’ve not got the analysis correct,” he adds. “So it remains to be seen what’s happening next.”

But that’s hard to predict. For one thing, the Arctic is subject to changes in pollution levels transported in from global events, including particulate matter from volcanic eruptions and biomass burning.

Over the next few years, the sources of pollutants may increase, says Dr. Drummond. As the region opens up, “there will be more ships going through and there will be increased resource extraction. So the Arctic will be a source of pollutants, as well as a receptor,” he explains. “Not in the next five years, probably, but in 25 years.” To properly assess changes over that time span, it’s important now to establish a baseline of current activities and events.

On the “Arctic night” shift

PEARL researchers will soon begin preparations to monitor the Arctic night. In the far north, that night is a long one: the sun doesn’t peek above the horizon at all between mid-October and late February.

Monitoring changes during the Arctic night is especially important, Dr. Drummond says, because of anticipated “resource extraction, [which] will go on all year. What are the issues during the Arctic night with pollution and so on? There is a whole slew of scientific questions there. First we need basic information to build an understanding of the current state,” he explains.

Before October, the PEARL researchers will have to ensure their equipment is ready. Because of the “extremely harsh environment,” equipment is “continually damaged by the cold,” Dr. Drummond explains, and “storms have moved the [satellite] dishes.”

The more the merrier

Eventually, PEARL will have company in the sparsely populated high Arctic, as the federal government plans to invest $188 million in a new station devoted to climate change research. But the two sites won’t exactly be neighbours: the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS) will be built in Cambridge Bay, 1,300 km south of PEARL.

That’s not quite so “high Arctic,” as Dr. Drummond emphasizes: “It’s similar to the distance between Toronto and Atlanta, Georgia. Nobody would believe we could predict the weather in Toronto by looking at data in Georgia,” he says. “People don’t realize just how large the Arctic is.” All the more reason to ensure PEARL has operating funds well into the future.

Dr. Drummond is looking forward to working with people at CHARS and other stations, including Denmark’s Station Nord in north Greenland, and Russia’s station at Tiksi. “It’s reaffirming that other nations regard this as being important.”


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