Canada’s only High Arctic research lab shuttered

After more than 25 trips to the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory on Ellesmere Island, Prof. Paul Fogal has learned a few things about Arctic science.

After more than 25 trips to the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory on Ellesmere Island, Prof. Paul Fogal has learned a few things about Arctic science.

He’s learned ice particles can penetrate even the toughest dust shields, coating instruments in ice.

He’s learned that trying to cool equipment using outside air makes the floor really cold and the ceiling hot.

And he’s figured out how to operate instruments at night – at 40 below – getting readings unmatched anywhere in the world.

But all these tricks of the trade will be of little use come May.

The atmospheric research laboratory has run out of money and is being mothballed April 30.

“I’ve feel like I’ve just gone 15 rounds in a boxing match,” said Fogal, who has been fighting for the lab’s survival for the past two years.

Canada’s High Arctic research lab is one of only three in the world.

Measuring carbon in the atmosphere, as well as ozone and climatic conditions, Canada’s lab was supporting atmospheric science programs all over the world, including a new American satellite monitoring carbon, and World Meteorological Organization research.

In fact, the meteorological organization’s president has been making pleas to have more Arctic research stations opened worldwide. “And now Canada is closing its lab instead,” said the lab’s principal investigator, Prof. James Drummond.

“Nobody I’ve spoken to in the international community thinks it’s anything better than a really bad idea,” Drummond said. “It doesn’t make us look very good on the world stage.”

Since 2005, the lab has been operating around the clock, 365 days a year, recording atmospheric data.

“Learning the state of the atmosphere is extremely important,” said Fogal. “Because the atmosphere is changing and will continue to change.

“And you have to know where you’ve been to see where you’re going. You can’t just spend a couple weeks getting up to speed.”

The lab has been used to research high-altitude winds, changes to the ozone layer and atmospheric temperature and pressure, while infrared measurements have been used to determine the composition of the atmosphere above the Arctic.

“It’s one of only a few on the globe that can do these types of measurements,” said Drummond.

“We were doing state-of-the-art measurements in conditions the manufacturers of the instruments never considered,” added Fogal.

Dealing with frigid temperatures proved difficult, but Arctic summers were no better.

It’s a desert up here, he said from the research station on Thursday. “And dust in the summer is a tremendous problem.”

New changes in the climate are also causing trouble.

“We barely ever got rain here,” he said. “But over the last two years it’s been raining a lot.”

The irony is not lost on Fogal.

As the climate changes, Arctic research is ever more important.

“But now, with no funding, atmospheric research is in crisis,” he said.

Last year, the research lab recorded the biggest ozone depletion in the Arctic to date, added Drummond.

There are certain chemicals we know deplete the ozone layer, said Fogal, mentioning chlorine compounds. And there have been some positive policies in place to help reduce the use of these dangerous compounds.

But once the Arctic research stops, it will be hard to know if these policies are effective, he said.

“It’s the same with cutting down on carbon, we won’t be able to see what is working and what isn’t.”

Shuttering Canada’s research lab leaves a black hole over the Arctic, said Drummond. “A loss of data means we don’t know what’s going on.

“So we won’t be able to adapt to changes, and not adapting to changes is not a good idea.

“It will affect our understanding of the climate in the future – but obviously the government doesn’t share my opinion.”

The lab used to apply for its funding from various organizations, including the Canadian Foundation for Climactic and Atmospheric Science and the International Polar Year.

“But these programs are no longer funded by the government and have been systematically changed or eliminated,” said Fogal. “So we have no more programs to apply to.”

And there has been nothing to replace them, said Drummond.

On Thursday, Fogal was at the research lab on Ellesmere Island with six grad students.

“One thing I do up here is train scientists,” he said.

In fact, Fogal’s first trip to the research lab was as a post-doctoral fellow with the Canadian Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Change in 1994.

“So losing the lab not only impacts science,” said Fogal. “It also impacts our scientists of the future.”

Although Fogal leaves most of the research to his grad students these days, he still feels worn out.

“It takes two days to fly up here,” he said. “Then it’s seven more hours in a turboprop, followed by 15 kilometres down a snowdrift-covered road.”

Once at the lab, the scientists do everything from measuring carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere to mopping the floor, making lunch and doing the dishes.

Sometimes they battle minus 40 temperatures in high winds, and sometimes the storms make it impossible to see their hands in front of their face.

But this is not why Fogal is worn out – it’s what he lives for.

“I’m feeling discouraged and battered dealing with the fallout of the closing announcement,” he said.

The government has announced it plans to build a new research station in Cambridge Bay in five years time. “But that’s not in the High Arctic,” said Fogal. “And as far as Arctic research goes, I’m not aware of any scientists who want to be in Cambridge Bay.”

Even the lab on Ellesmere Island is not ideal for all types of research, he said.

“Assuming you can do everything in one area shows a severe lack of understanding of how research is done.”

With the Ellesmere lab closing, only two Arctic research stations will remain – one in Norway and another that is just starting up in Russia.

The Canadian lab cost $1.5 million a year to operate, which sounds like a lot of money, said Fogal. “But as far as Arctic or Antarctic bases go, we’re damn cheap.”

On Thursday, Fogal was standing next to the only instrument in the country measuring upwards of 20 chemicals in the atmosphere.

“We have a number of instruments measuring today and a couple more that are trying,” said Fogal.

“But the clouds keep popping up in front of the sun.

“We need a clear view.”

The atmosphere isn’t predictable, said Drummond.

“And people may not suffer in the next six weeks because we’re not up there – it’s the long term where it becomes important.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at