‘Eureka moment’ provides unique opportunity for students

When you’re small, and stuck in the High Arctic, it’s all about the suspenders.

Last week, Western Science students Emily McCullough and Shaymila Gamage were preparing to head north – way north – to the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), outside Eureka, Nunavut. Prior to departure, McCullough, a frequent visitor to the research facility, offered a bit of advice to Gamage.

In fact, she provided the first-timer with a list of things to bring.

“Suspenders. Don’t forget suspenders,” McCullough said. “We’re both kind of short. All of our Arctic gear, which is loaned to us, even the super-powered snowpants, are a little on the big side. So the suspenders keep your pants up. But, it’s even better than that.

“The boots we wear are heavy – like a kilo each. But if you zip your snowpants over the boots, and if you suspend your snowpants with your suspenders, it all holds itself together and you can actually lift your feet off the ground.”

McCullough’s advice is being put to the test this week as the Western pair, along with a small team of faculty and students from other Canadian universities, are working at PEARL.

PEARL is a Canadian Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Change research facility in the Arctic. Operating continuously since 2005, the station is located on Ellesmere Island, 15 km from Eureka, a remote weather station, and about 1,100 km from the North Pole.

It’s not that hard to get to, McCullough assured. Just head out the Western Gates, turn right and head to Toronto, fly to Edmonton, then onto Yellowknife, where you spend the night before boarding a charter flight from Cambridge Bay to Resolute to Eureka.

PEARL includes three large laboratories. The Western team is working out of the Zero Altitude PEARL Auxilary Laboratory (0PAL).

McCullough earned a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics from St. Mary’s University, and then arrived at Western where she earned a master’s degree in Astronomy, with a specialization in Planetary Science. During those studies, she fell in love with the atmosphere and her ‘Eureka experience.’ She is now in a PhD program studying the same area.

“I wanted to do less far-out stuff, and more you could directly do controlled experiments on,” she said. “The atmosphere was an aspect of planetary science I hadn’t thought much about before starting. Now, I just love it.”

McCullough focuses her research on the composition of clouds. Using the LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging), she fires a laser at clouds. A fraction of the light she sends up is reflected back down, which is then gathered and analyzed, to garner details on the composition of the clouds. The information can be used worldwide for numerous projects, including those related to climate change.

Gamage earned her undergraduate degree in physics back home in Sri Lanka. She joined Western as a masters student last fall.

She focuses her research on water vapor in the atmosphere, comparing measurements she takes from below with measurements taken by a satellite from above.

“It’s a very exciting opportunity,” she said. “There will be a lot for me to learn from the people there.”

Timing of the visit is key, as the measurement campaign during late February to late March coincides with a great deal of atmospheric chemistry prompted by the return of sunlight (the ‘Polar sunrise’).

The facility is as self-contained as you can get in the region. It boasts an independent power source (diesel generator); self-contained water and sewage systems; kitchen; living quarters; a garage; a small machine shop; and a safe hut away from the main building that can function independently should a disaster befall the main building during extreme weather.

The research team is partially funded by the Canadian Space Agency, because they conduct satellite validation work. The current trip coincides with the 10th anniversary of data from the Canadian satellite mission, ACE.

“This is a great milestone in Canadian science and space, as the satellite was designed and built here, and much of the science done is by Canadian university researchers,” said Dan Weaver, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, and a research team member.