Canada's northernmost federal weather and research station is scaling back some environmental measurements and possibly suspending some others for six months due to a staff shortage blamed on "unusually high" turnover, CBC News has learned. Scientists say that will leave a permanent gap in records needed to understand global climate change.

In Alert, Nunavut, the northernmost station has delivered data for more than half a century. Now, it cannot be manned properly due to financial shortages by the Meteorological Service Canada. Credit: Paul Chiasson, Canadian Press
In Alert, Nunavut, the northernmost station has delivered data for more than half a century. Now, it cannot be manned properly due to financial shortages by the Meteorological Service Canada. Credit: Paul Chiasson, Canadian Press

Environment and Climate Change Canada's weather station at Alert, Nunavut, is at the northeastern tip of Ellesmere island, just 817 kilometres from the North Pole — globally, there are few other sources of information about conditions that far north. Records of atmospheric conditions, snow thickness and sea ice thickness collected at Alert go back half a century, making them some of the longest-running and most valuable in the world for understanding climate change. Researchers across the globe use the data for weather and climate research and prediction, as well as for calibrating aircraft and satellite instruments. But they're going to have to rely on less data this year. Measurements have been scaled back since the start of October until the end of March 2018, confirmed Christine Best, director of radar and upper air at the Meteorological Service of Canada, a division of Environment and Climate Change Canada. For the rotation that started at the beginning of October, for the first time in recent history, the division wasn't able to find a second person to deploy to Alert due to "unusually high" staff turnover, Best said. While funding to the Meteorological Service has not been cut by the current Liberal government, it initially planned to suspend measurements for six months in order to save money that could be used on other costs. "Costs go up, so we're trying to live within our means," Best said. However, Environment Canada's science and technology division was worried about the effect that would have on crucial measurements of the ozone hole that forms over the Arctic each spring and can only be detected and measured very close to the North Pole. In the end, Best said, a single staffer was sent up to Alert and told to prioritize the ozone measurements. "This is the first time we've ever reduced operations at Alert," Best said in an interview. "So no one has ever kept track of how much time it takes to do everything." Not only meteorological data, but also data on snow and ice will have significant gaps due to the shortage.

Sometimes students were deployed to check weather instruments and make measurements according to protocols. It usually took at least two, now only one can go. Credit: Canadian Press
Sometimes students were deployed to check weather instruments and make measurements according to protocols. It usually took at least two, now only one can go. Credit: Canadian Press

Christian Haas, a sea ice scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institut in Bremerhaven, Germany, who also holds a Canada Research Chair for Arctic Sea Ice Geophysics at York University in Toronto, said Alert is an important site for sea ice measurement because the ice that forms in the Arctic passes by Alert and northern Greenland before drifting farther south. It's also the area with the oldest ice — the kind of ice that is disappearing fastest with climate change. "What they do is very valuable, because they have been doing it for such a long time that this is one of the most reliable climate data sets," Haas said. With snow and sea ice measurements cut back or suspended at Alert this winter, we'll miss any unusual variability this year that could tell us something new about the climate, said Ron Kwok, a senior research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. "It's going to affect how we compute trends," said Kwok, who uses the snow and ice data from Alert both for analyzing climate trends and for calibrating remote sensors on NASA aircraft and satellites. He said that while researchers find ways to cope with missing data for short periods of time if they have to, the missing observations are "going to be damaging" to a dataset that is so valuable because it is otherwise mostly continuous. "You can't get them back."

Alert is the northernmost permanently inhabited place and only 817 kilometers away from the North Pole. According to a census, 62 people live here. Credit: NOAA
Alert is the northernmost permanently inhabited place and only 817 kilometers away from the North Pole. According to a census, 62 people live here. Credit: NOAA

Source: Emily Chung, CBC News