New funding saves Arctic research lab

The PEARL Arctic research centre in northern Canada won't be shutting it's doors after all, thanks to new federal funding. (Photo: SavePEARL Facebook group)

Work at one of the world’s northernmost research centres is shifting back into high gear thanks to new funding.


The Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, Canada is receiving the equivalent of about €760,000 a year for five years from the federal government to continue its operations. The announcement comes a year after funding to the site ran out and full-time monitoring of air quality, ozone depletion and climate change came to an end.

“Without this new funding, we’d pretty much have come to the end of what we could do and by now we would be pulling the instruments down,” says James Drummond, principal investigator at the research centre, which is affectionately known as PEARL.

The site has been gathering data on Arctic atmospheric conditions to some degree since 1992 when it was set up by a branch of Environment Canada to take ozone measurements. In 2005, the research centre was taken over by the Canadian Network for Detection of Atmospheric Change, which pumped the equivalent of €1.1 million a year into the lab to keep it running. But this ground to a halt in 2012 when federal funding to the agency ran out.

”Everybody was very disappointed,” Drummond says. “PEARL is a unique site and the measurements we make are rare in the Arctic.”

Among these measurements were those taken in 2011 when PEARL found itself directly underneath the largest ozone depletion event ever detected in the northern hemisphere. The data collected were used by researchers around the world to study the incident.

Drummond says the event demonstrated the importance of continuous monitoring in remote places because by the time natural phenomena like that are detected, it takes too long to reach them and get set up to collect useful data – unless someone is already there.

“In essence, we’re like a cat waiting outside a mouse hole waiting for something to happen,” Drummond says.

Despite a lack of substantial funding, researchers have been monitoring Arctic atmospheric conditions to some extent over the past 12 months thanks to support from non-governmental organizations, including the Canadian Climate Forum. This has allowed the site to remain open and for data to be collected with automated instruments.

And now that new funding has been obtained, activity is ramping back up as researchers prepare to return to the site to repair damaged equipment and resume measurements that can’t be done by machines alone.

“I think this is great news,” says Katharine Hayhoe, a climate change scientist and Canadian now working at Texas Tech University in the United States.

“We know that climate today is changing very quicly as a result of human activity and we know that the Arctic is one of the most sensitive places in the world in terms of how quickly it’s changing so it’s essential to have on-the-ground monitoring in this sensitive area so we understand how human activities are affecting the Arctic.”

It’s a view echoed by Dan Weaver, a PhD candidate at University of Toronto in Canada who has done much of his graduate research on Arctic water cycles and ozone depletion at PEARL. Following the funding loss to the site last year, Weaver created a series of “Save PEARL” social media profiles to raise awareness of the important research happening at the facility.

“There is no substitute for being able to travel to the high Arctic to conduct field work,” he says. “Computer simulations aren’t enough. Satellite measurements aren’t enough. We need a permanent scientific presence in the North if we want to understand the changing Arctic and fulfill our responsibilities as an Arctic nation.”

Still, the new funding does not mean a return to old times.

The money, which comes from Canada’s new Climate Change and Atmospheric Research initiative, is not enough to keep full-time staff at the site as was done previously.

But it’s a start, Drummond says, and it’s enough to allow researchers to travel up to the site throughout the year to do equipment maintenance and work on specific projects.

Some of that travelling is being done now as staff prepare the site for upcoming monitoring. Drummond says his team hopes to make PEARL fully operational by October so researchers are able to take measurements during the polar night, which remains an under-studied period of time.