'You can't turn on a dime.'
Money 'uncertainties; plague polar research lab
A dozen scientists have returned to the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory on Ellesmere Island to watch the long polar night turn to day.
This is the time of year when scientists can learn much about the environment by observing changes in the air and on the ground as sunlight returns to the High Arctic.
But the future of the laboratory known as PEARL, located 15 kilometres from the Eureka air base, is up in the air.
That's because the money which helps support PEARL is disappearing, said James Drummond, its lead scientist.
"You can't turn on a dime," said Drummond, who didn't accompany his team up to PEARL this year to watch the sun rise.
Instead he's still in the South, scouting for money to keep PEARL open.
A grant of more than $200,000 a year in operating funds from Canada's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council ends March 31.
PEARL's $5.5 million, five-year grant from the Canadian Foundation for Atmospheric and Climate Sciences runs out next March.
This money pays for the work of the members of the research team at PEARL who use 25 different instruments to measure and track changes in the levels of ozone and contaminants.
These changes are at their height right now.
During the month around the polar sunrise, ozone gas, which protects humans, wildlife and even fish from the sun's harmful ultra-violet radiation, vanishes while mercury drops out of the air and accumulates in the snow.
"The chemical state of the atmosphere changes dramatically in the transition between the long polar night and the long polar day. We observe intensely during this period, and then we continue to observe as much as we can during the rest of the year," Drummond said.
PEARL first opened in 1993 as a federal facility to study ozone, after holes in the atmosphere's protective ozone layer had appeared over the poles. The laboratory briefly shut down in 2004, when Ottawa said it could no longer afford to keep it going.
PEARL now needs $1 million per year for operations and about $1.5 million to support its year-round science program.
PEARL was never in the running to become Nunavut's new High Arctic research station, but Drummond said PEARL could play a complementary role as a smaller, specialized station.
There is $85 million in the federal budget set aside to maintain and upgrade existing Arctic research stations like PEARL, but Drummond said this money is not to be used for operating costs or science.
So who will pay to keep PEARL heated and staffed?
"The government's last budget put a lot of money into infrastructure and they took money out of operating budgets," Drummond said.
With the end of International Polar Year in sight, there's also much less money available for polar science.
"All the other sources of funding have fundamentally eroded. I can write up a proposal [for funding], but it's not entirely clear who I should send it to," Drummond said.
The uncertainty is a huge problem because Drummond said he must plan now for 2010, placing a sealift order for supplies and lining up staff.
Planning way ahead of time is a reality of working in the North, which Ottawa doesn't always recognize, Drummond said.