Polar Environment Atmosphere Research Laboratory

What Happened

PEARL – the Polar Environment Atmosphere Research Laboratory – is Canada’s northernmost facility carrying out research on atmospheric conditions and on how climate is changing in one of the most sensitive regions of the planet.

In 2012, after two federal budgets failed to renew its funding, PEARL was partially shut down. Scientists applied for new funds but were turned down because they could not demonstrate industrial benefits. After an outcry from the scientific community, the Harper government announced a $5-million grant to PEARL in May 2013. The grant is over five years, but falls about 30% short of the $1.5 million needed so that PEARL can operate on a full-time basis.

PEARL is located on Ellesmere Island, about 10 degrees from the North Pole. Its laboratories and observatory track data on ozone depletion, cloud conditions, climate change, and air quality in the high Arctic.

PEARL is unique, not only in Canada but also as one of the most northern full-time research laboratories in the world, forming part of a network of northern research stations.

Climate change is accelerated in the high Arctic, and PEARL acts as an early warning system for climate scientists. Scientist Katharine Hayhoe maintains 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."

In 2011, PEARL found itself directly under what turned out to be one of the largest ozone holes ever to be discovered. Its detection was a significant scientific discovery and Canadians took the lead in scientific publications on the phenomenon.

Big funding chill

Until 2011, PEARL received about three-quarters of its funding from a federally-funded agency called the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CFCAS). CFCAS was created by a Liberal government in 2000. Over the span of its existence, CFCAS awarded nearly $120 million for university-led research on how our climate and weather are changing and the impacts on health, safety, economy and the environment.

Following a series of major cuts at Environment Canada over two successive budgets, CFCAS lost its federal funding and in April 2012, PEARL was slated to be closed. Full time operators who were responsible for monitoring data year-round left the facility and critical seasonal data was lost.

On July 10, 2012 a group of professors and graduate students in Ottawa organized a rally to protest the “death of evidence” and budget cuts to programs including to PEARL. One of the organizers of the rally, Katie Gibbs, a conservation biologist and the Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy, asserted that the cuts to PEARL were part of “a systematic campaign to reduce the flow of scientific information to Canadians.”

Replacement program, inadequate funding

In 2013, following the protests, the government granted $5 million in research funding over five years, based on an application  submitted by principal investigator, James Drummond. The funding is from a new federal initiative called Climate Change and Atmospheric Research (CCAR) which operates under the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

The new funds represent a reduction of $500,000 of PEARL’s budget on an annual basis as compared to the previous funding level of $1.5 million.

Scientists argue that the effective study of climate change demands more than the five-year commitment from CCAR. Drummond said he would like confirmation that funding won’t end after its five year grant expires. Some reporters have stated that the new funding is “insufficient compensation for ending the CFCAS’s much larger and more flexible grant”.

The impact is that PEARL will no longer be able to operate at full capacity or to make continuous measurements, thus creating data gaps. University of Toronto atmospheric physicist Kimberly Strong operates one of the spectrometers at PEARL. She notes that the number of PEARL spectrometer-days fell from around 150 days before the cuts to approximately 30 days afterwards.

Strong explains that PEARL’s decreased operations “send a message that Canada isn’t as serious about keeping an eye on its Arctic.” Her comments echo remarks from other scientists who say that the government is “not interested in basic research in its own backyard.”

While the full-time operation of PEARL are cut back and others have been reduced or eliminated, the federal government has committed more than $118 million in 2007 to construct a new facility called the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS). CHARS will focus on “environmental science and resource development.” It is slated to receive $46.2 million in funding for research and is scheduled to open in 2017. CHARS has been billed as “a world-class hub for science and technology in Canada’s North.”

However, some scientists argue that the station is too far south and that a single large station cannot easily replace a network of research labs and facilities. They argue that the result will be less effective at undertaking scientific research.

Less evidence for democracy

The partial shut-down of PEARL is part of a larger trend that has damaged research and diminished the data available to environmental science and especially to basic science. Canadian scientists say they are losing ground to scientists from other countries.

The trend includes the federal government’s extensive cuts to Environment Canada and to environmental research networks and agencies like CFCAS, as well as decisions to shutter the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) and to cut funding to “a slew of Arctic science stations and programs to expire quietly, be axed outright or suffer paralyzing budget cuts.”

Relevant Dates:

  • 1995: The continuous operation of PEARL is undertaken by the Canadian Network for Detection of Atmospheric Change
  • 2000: The Liberal government establishes the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CFCAS) to provide research grants.
  • 2007: The Conservative government announces plans to build a new Arctic research station much further south.
  • 2009: Conservative Environment Minister Kim Prentice extends the CFCAS 10-year mandate by one year but does not provide new funds.
  • 2010: The Conservative budget again contains no new funding for CFCAS.
  • 2012: CFCAS’s funds run out. PEARL is forced to cease year-round operation due to lack of funding.  
  • July 10, 2012: Scientists hold the Death of Evidence rally in Ottawa to protest the government’s cuts to scientific research, particularly on the environment.
  • May 17, 2013: The Minister of State (Science and Technology) announces $5 million of new funding for PEARL over a maximum of five years under the Climate Change and Atmospheric Research (CCAR) initiative. The funding, while welcome, is inadequate to sustain year-round operations.

Role or Position

PEARL is a research facility dedicated to research in the high Arctic and comprises four research laboratories and an observing platform that measure atmospheric properties from the ground to about 100 km. One of the laboratory buildings originally was built by the Meteorological Service of Canada in 1992. PEARL has been continuously studying ozone depletion, climate change and air quality since 2005.

Located in Eureka on Ellesmere Island on Nunavut, it is Canada’s northernmost civilian research station in the high Arctic. PEARL is operated by the Canadian Network for Detection of Atmospheric Change, an informal network of university researchers.

Implications and Consequences

Knowledge: The loss of uninterrupted data measurements from a critical northern facility has hobbled a critical scientific sentry in the High Arctic. It has become more difficult to track, analyse and report on what is happening in terms of climate change and ozone levels, and Canadian scientists are losing ground in the global scientific community as a result.

Free Speech: Disrupted data and diminished operations in the high Arctic also undermine the ability of Canadian scientists and the public to advocate for sustainable development based on sound scientific evidence.

Democracy: Democratic institutions need evidence to develop effective policy, especially in fast changing and volatile areas of research that are highly contentious. Effective and evidence-based policy in the areas of climate change and environmental science are key components of effective federal policy.


Date published: Aug. 25, 2014