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Guelph scientist leads climate research in The Great White North (16 photos)

Pierre Fogal leads a team of researchers monitoring the weather and climate change in the Arctic

Working at Canada's most northerly island, Pierre Fogal doesn’t have to walk too far before he lands in an area no man has ever set foot.

“This is part of Canada that we all feel some affinity for. You know, the Great White North so to speak,” says the Guelph born and raised scientist and senior research associate in the department of physics at the University of Toronto.

Doing work vital in understanding climate change, Fogal leads a team of researchers — clad in their Canada Goose Resolute Parkas, down-filled pants, and -60C boots — who monitor climate change at  80°N latitude, 1,100 km from the North Pole where temperatures can drop to -50C.

His work since 2005  has been key for scientists around the world who are able to access the mass amount of data shared from his station in Ellesmere Island in Eureka, Nunavut, known as Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL). The lab was built by the Meteorological Service of Canada in 1992 for the purpose of studying the stratospheric ozone and is used by government and university scientists to measure and detect changes in the environment. 

On March. 4, Fogal will be presented the eMERGE Climate Change Hero Award for 2021 in honour of his outstanding work. He will be speaking at the event

So why does he do what he does and why does he have to go all the way to the top of the world?

Because of the untainted, pristine conditions of the North. 

“The Arctic and the Antarctic are much cleaner than the latitudes that we live in pretty much because there’s no one there. And so it's much easier to detect changes there because the things that change, they change by small amounts, they change slowly,” says Fogal. 

Because of the location and the number of instruments at the team’s disposal, they can measure different properties in the atmosphere anywhere from the surface to up to about 100 km of altitude. 

PEARL’s research team consists of a staff of 80 researchers and students. Typically the site has between 12 to 15 people present at any given time. 

Fogal’s role consists of managing the operators on-site around the clock, providing support, remaining present for all instrument installations and learning how they work. 

He’s noticed many environmental changes since he began working there nearly 16 years ago, including the continuous melting landscape and the variations in temperature. 

“Over 15 years, I do note that the number of cold days does seem to have decreased over the winter. It's been some time since we’ve gotten below minus 50 C,” says Fogal. “That would happen two or three days a year before.”

Growing up, Fogal had no idea the career field he's in even existed. 

“You know, I knew the weather forecast and things like that but I was completely unaware of the field of atmospheric physics that I'm in,” he says. 

It wasn’t until he enrolled in a co-op position with Environment Canada during his undergrad at Waterloo University that he encountered the world of atmospheric physics which pulled him toward his career specializing in infrared spectroscopy. 

“First of all, I like being outdoors, I liked making measurements and working with instruments and I found that area of study allowed me to do all of those things that I enjoyed doing,” says Fogal. 

He made his first trip to Eureka in 1994 as a post-doctoral student and started working there in 2005 when PEARL launched. 

And now, on an average year, Fogal makes between three to five trips to the bright red PEARL station for six to 10 weeks at a time and the journey from Guelph to Eureka takes over 36 hours.

Once he leaves his home from Guelph, he flies from Toronto to Calgary or Edmonton on a commercial plane to Yellowknife. From there the team has to charter an aircraft that typically requires three stops in three cities to refuel before landing on the runway in Eureka. 

“Literally everything that's eaten, all the fuel that's used, all the supplies, parts has to be supplied, transported,” says Fogal adding that it becomes an expensive proposition to support PEARL.

“This isn’t unique to Eureka, this is the case with all of the settlements in the Arctic.” 

Being that far from civilization also requires caution. 

“I'm always very aware of where I am and the issues that come up because of the location.

"The nearest hospital is seven hours away by plane and so you have to be very aware of what you're doing and staying well,” says Fogal adding that the closest station is 400 km south. 

When he gives a safety brief on-site, he tells everyone “you’re always one step away from disaster."

“If you have a road accident, fall off a tower or slip and break a bone. When medical attention is required, it would be a 12 to 18-hour process,” says Fogal. 

He describes Ellesmere Island as beautiful with some parts of the island just striking. 

“I think that for people who go there for the first time, it’s not what they expect,” says Fogal.

If you go in the winter, it looks like the Arctic, but if you go in the summer, the snow most years goes away and it can be quite warm in the summer, typically between  8C to 10C, getting as warm as 20C.

The sun will rise in a few days on Feb. 20 for the first time in months in the Arctic but this time Fogal will be at his home in Guelph because of the pandemic. 

He says it's humbling to be able to stand in a pristine, distant place like Eureka.

“The landscape is unlike anything I’ve ever seen anywhere else. It's peculiar to the forces that create it and the silence is complete,” says Fogal. 

“It doesn't take too long before you’re probably somewhere nobody has been. It’s humbling,” says Fogal. 

“We need to look after it, We need to not ignore it and quite often it's too easy to forget that it's there.”