Scientist surfaces to praise ozone monitoring amidst federal review

published Oct. 21, 2011 by Postmedia News

OTTAWA – A senior Environment Canada scientist whose job may be eliminated through budget cuts has highlighted the importance of maintaining the country’s world-leading atmospheric monitoring network after new research showed a record hole in the planet’s ozone layer above the Arctic.

David Tarasick was among four Canadian authors of the international study, published Oct. 2 in the British scientific journal Nature, that reported on the hole – twice the size of Ontario – in the ozone layer that protects life on Earth from the sun’s harmful radiation.

Until now, the Conservative government, facing criticism about its decision to review resources in the monitoring network, has prevented Tarasick from speaking publicly about the research.

“We’ve been doing this (for) about 45 years now,” Tarasick said in a telephone interview supervised by Environment Canada officials. “The Canadian stations have been the backbone of the global network (of monitoring) ever since we started measuring ozone.”

Tarasick and some other government scientists who work on atmospheric monitoring were advised this summer that their positions could be eliminated as the department imposes cuts affecting hundreds in its workforce.

Environment Minister Peter Kent has denied that the government plans to shut down its monitoring network, but explained this month in the House of Commons that his department was “optimizing and streamlining” the way it monitors and collects ozone data.

The department has suggested it could do this by improving the integration between different technologies used to measure ozone.

But Tarasick explained that the monitoring network already has “limited resources” for maintaining the existing quality of data collected and used in the recent Nature study.

“If the taxpayer in his infinite wisdom were to give me 10 times the budget I have now, I think I could use all that money quite usefully and do good science with it,” Tarasick said. “I don’t think we’re wasting a penny . . . Could we get by on less money? Well, we could do less with less money. We could do more with more money.”

Tarasick also indicated that the warning about his job was not rescinded and lightheartedly said that it was increasing his “stress level.”

But he explained that the monitoring work has numerous implications regarding issues such as pollution, as well as weather forecasting.

“Ozone is very important in many ways,” he said. “In effect, it determines the large-scale circulation of the atmosphere. We didn’t start measuring ozone because we were worried about ozone depletion. We started measuring ozone back in the 1950s because we were trying to understand the circulation of the atmosphere better and to improve weather forecasting . . . and it was fortunate that we had a long data set when people started to notice that the ozone was changing.”

Ozone is considered to be a pollutant that affects air quality in the lower atmosphere, but in the upper atmosphere, it acts as a shield for life on Earth from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation.

According to computer models, it could take 10 to 40 years for the ozone layer to recover from depletion caused by substances released prior to an international agreement – signed in 1987 in Montreal – to phase them out of products such as spray cans and refrigerators. Scientists say there is uncertainty in the predictions partly because of the ongoing release of some ozone-depleting substances that can be tracked through the existing monitoring and measurements.

“It’s really a global problem, which is why there is so much interest in our data from around the world,” said Tarasick. “To be trite, the atmosphere is a global atmosphere.”

Before the interview started, Environment Canada tried to limit the interview topics, telling Postmedia News Tarasick would not answer questions about potential cuts to the ozone monitoring network. A spokeswoman intervened when Tarasick was asked about the government’s efforts to keep him from speaking when the Nature study was published at the beginning of October.

“David is here and available to speak to you now, so I think that’s kind of a moot point,” said Renee David, the manager of media relations at Environment Canada.

But Tarasick proceeded to answer the question.

“Well I’m available when media relations says I’m available,” he said. “I have to go through them.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government introduced new rules to control interviews with journalists by Environment Canada scientists in 2007, resulting in an 80 per cent drop in media coverage of climate change science, according to an internal analysis that was released in 2010.

Meantime, Tarasick said the Nature study also discusses some uncertainties in existing models about global warming in the Arctic. He also noted other research that shows how the increasing concentration of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere is trapping heat in the lower part, and resulting in cooling temperatures in the upper atmosphere, which can contribute to ozone depletion.

Environment Canada measurements show that the hole over the Arctic resulted in somewhat lower ozone over most Canadians this summer, and UV levels about three to five per cent higher than what would be expected if there had not been a hole. But Tarasick assured Canadians that they should not have health concerns because of the recent ozone depletion.

“If we didn’t have the Montreal Protocol (signed in 1987) . . . we would have seen a rather permanent ozone hole, which would have flushed, in the spring, low levels of ozone to lower latitudes,” Tarasick explained. “It appears we really did save the world in 1987.”


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