Kent’s claims regarding Arctic PEARL ‘factually incorrect’

The environment minister is woefully uninformed about the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory.

Environment Minister Peter Kent is well-known for admonishing opposition members of parliament for “doing their research in the media”. In a letter to the Victoria Times-Colonist this past week, Kent provided an excellent example of why one should be careful about what one reads. He made several false claims about Canada’s Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL). As one of five co-founders of PEARL, I will be pleased to correct the Minister’s misconceptions and set the record straight.

As seen in iPolitics.
As seen in iPolitics.

PEARL is Canada’s premiere High Arctic atmospheric observatory. It is co-located with the Eureka Weather Station on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian arctic archipelago. At 80°N latitude, PEARL is the world’s most northern civilian research facility. Measurements at the site provide important scientific data needed to meet the twin challenges of monitoring ozone depletion and climate change.

In his letter, Kent claimed that “where the previous Liberal government did mothball PEARL, Environment Canada continues to fund and maintain the facility, awaiting researchers who might again win funding through the grant competition administered by the independent National Centres of Excellence competition.” It is astonishing that Kent could pack so many misstatements of fact into a single sentence.

PEARL was established in 2004 under a grant to the University of Toronto from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation. The name PEARL did not exist before then and so the former government could not have “mothballed” it. Scientific support for PEARL was provided to universities on the former government’s watch through a grant from the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science (CFCAS). New facilities were built at Eureka and new cutting-edge instruments for atmospheric monitoring were installed.

Amongst the facilities under the PEARL umbrella is the iconic red PEARL Ridge Lab. That facility was built by Environment Canada (EC) in 1992 and was known then as the Arctic Stratospheric Ozone (AStrO) Observatory. While EC did mothball some of their projects at AStrO in the early 2000s, university researchers have maintained an unbroken string of springtime ozone depletion observations there, including detection of the first ever Arctic ozone hole in 2011.

Kent’s notion that EC continues to fund and maintain PEARL is outrageous. EC maintains the Ridge Lab, and always has, but PEARL researchers continue to care for the other facilities and all of the instrumentation. On-site support by EC personnel is provided in exchange for the use of PEARL facilities (e.g., satellite communications and WIFI) that EC needs. No direct “funds” are provided to PEARL by EC.

Kent denies that his government “shut down” PEARL, but it is indisputable that they shut down the funding programs that sustained it. The government abandoned CFCAS and so ended PEARL’s ability to pay its scientists, many of whom were forced to take up jobs outside the country. The withdrawal of research funds has resulted in the needless destruction of Canada’s research capacity and it will take a decade or more to rebuild.

The federal government promised some new support for climate and atmospheric research in the June 2011 budget, but still hasn’t delivered those funds to researchers. The funds were held up at Treasury Board and were only dislodged in early 2012 after an outcry from the research community. Despite promises of transparency and accountability from the federal government, no explanation for the hold-up has been given. Even with this funding, atmospheric and climate research in Canada will be funded at less than 70% of the level of 2006 when this government came to power.

And it wasn’t only CFCAS that the government shut down without replacement. Much has already been written about the end to the government’s Major Resource Support (MRS) program, which was a key supporter of PEARL. PEARL was also funded for a time by the government’s International Polar Year (IPY) Fund. An anticipated legacy fund failed to materialize and much of the government’s investment in Arctic research infrastructure during IPY and from their “Action Plan” is going to waste.

Kent’s statement that PEARL is “awaiting researchers who might again win funding through the grant competition administered by the independent National Centres of Excellence competition” is terribly misleading. The NCE program has never funded PEARL. Their mandate is strongly focused on producing economic benefits while PEARL pursues “research in the public interest”. While it is true that PEARL researchers applied to the NCE program as part of a larger community proposal, this was because all other avenues of support had been cut off. As a final insult, Kent inappropriately announced the NCE’s decision as part of a partisan attack in the House of Commons, despite an embargo on that information from the “independent” NCE program.

So, point-by-point Kent’s claims about PEARL are factually incorrect. Many other claims in the Times-Colonist letter have been so profoundly discredited that it is no small wonder he had the gall to utter them. This past week, in response to criticism he had “misled Canadians”, Kent told an opposition MP that she should talk to “better informed scientists”. What we really need is a better-informed Minister.

Thomas J Duck is an Associate professor, Physics and Atmospheric Science, at Dalhousie University, and a co-founder of the Canadian Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Change.

The subtitle for this story did not appear in the original.

(Updated 15 September 2015)