August 11, 2006

PEARL of the Arctic

Eureka weather station reborn

JANE GEORGE

Click images to enlarge

Scientists are busy hooking up instruments that will tell us more about what’s going on in the air we breathe and the sky above us. (PHOTOS COURTESY OF PEARL)

Thanks to satellite connections, most monitoring of this remote equipment can be done long distance.

Canada’s Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory or “PEARL” reopened two weeks ago, partially due to renewed interest in the Arctic climate.

Follow the longest extension cord in Canada, and you’ll reach Canada’s Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory, or PEARL.

A bird’s eye view of the Eureka weather station complex on Ellesmere Island.
Canada’s newest eye on climate change is located almost as far north in as you can travel in Nunavut.

To get there, go to the Eureka weather station on Ellesmere Island, then follow what is perhaps the longest extension cord in Canada for about 15 kilometres along the High Arctic’s longest road, and, before you know it, you’ll reach Canada’s Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory or “PEARL.”

PEARL’s research will focus on the atmosphere’s protective layer of ozone, air quality and, most importantly, climate change in the High Arctic.

“That’s where you can see the atmosphere in extreme conditions and probably where the changes start. Climate change is our largest long-term focus,” says James Drummond, a scientist from the University of Toronto and one of the leaders of the PEARL project.

PEARL researchers will also study contaminants.

“We’re starting to worry about things like organic pollutants, which are more intimately related to people and their food supply,” Drummond says.

The new PEARL facility will also serve as a calibration point for data from satellites, because their data isn’t reliable north of 60 and need a reference point in the High Arctic.

PEARL officially opened just two weeks ago. That’s when a chartered 737 from Edmonton brought a planeload of scientists, technicians and VIP guests, including Simon Awa, Nunavut’s deputy minister of the environment, to Eureka, with a cargo of new instruments that were too big to fit into a Twin Otter.

They spent 10 hours on the ground. Then the plane flew back, leaving six people behind in Eureka to repair equipment and set up a state-of-the-art instrument called an infrared spectrometer.

The spectrometer measures sunlight coming through the atmosphere and measures how much ozone and ozone-destroying gases there are in the atmosphere, and where.

With this instrument and others, the year-round laboratory will probe the atmosphere above Eureka, providing important new data for studies of the Arctic.

Electricity to power the facility is furnished by the Eureka Weather Station’s generator by a long extension cord, and a back-up generator is available in case of a black-out.

The facility costs about $1 million a year to operate. Until recently, it was mothballed due to a lack of money. From 1992 to 2002, it operated as the Arctic Stratospheric Ozone Observatory, collecting data on ozone, the gas that protects the Earth from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays.

PEARL now has four to five years worth of funding lined up from 10 partners. But the competition for research dollars remains extremely high, Drummond says, and he’s waiting for the federal government’s new environment plan and budget to see what is earmarked for climate and atmospheric science.

Over the next few years, scientists from around the world are expected to collaborate in PEARL’s activities and house their instrumentation there.

Two people will stay at Eureka year-round in six-week shifts after the equipment is up-and-running. They’ll sleep at the Eureka weather station’s new accommodation building, which also officially opened two weeks ago.

However, most of the operations at PEARL are monitored from afar thanks to the lab’s satellite link.

“People are really just there to do what needs to be done physically, a lot of the new equipment we are bringing here we hope will be more automatic in operation,” Drummond said.

The idea, says Drummond, is to look at the atmosphere with a variety of instruments. At the same time, scientists will re-examine data from the 1990s and comparing them with today’s data.

PEARL is already generating data. Instruments have detected a definite smoke layer over Eureka within the last month, caused by forest fires to the south.

“As more instruments come on line there’ll be more and more data. We’re aiming to have all the instruments on line and in place by March 2007, but it’s more likely going to be summer of 2007 before we have everything up and running.”

PEARL, one of four major Arctic labs in existence, is also hoping to have a what’s called an “SOS” or “special observing season” to attract more researchers.

“We think that the polar sunrise will be a permanent SOS. Next year will mark the start of the International Polar Year, and we would like the entire year to be an SOS,” Drummond says.

PEARL will be a key project for Canada during the International Polar Year in 2007-2008, when the world’s circumpolar nations co-ordinate research to understand the impact of the poles on Earth’s climate and ecosystems.

“PEARL opens up a whole new research area for Canadian scientists” Drummond says.