Measuring Arctic Ozone with a Differential Absorption Lidar

Author: Ghazal Farhani, PhD Student at The University of Western Ontario

Ozone is a minor constituent of the atmosphere, but it plays an important role by absorbing harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation emitted by the Sun. The bulk of this protective ozone resides in the stratosphere at an altitude range between 15 and 50 km. A small amount resides near the surface, but it is a pollutant. Significant chemical depletion of the total ozone during late winter and spring has been observed in both Antarctica and, more recently, in the Arctic. This depletion is commonly known as an ozone hole. The greatest changes in stratospheric ozone occur during polar sunrise (the transition from continuous night to continuous day). In order to detect and quantify the ozone hole, continuous measurements during this period are required.


The ultraviolet beam of the Ozone DIAL at the Ridge Lab in Eureka, Nunavut. Image Credit: Ghazal Farhani

Many different instruments have been used to make ozone measurements. A LiDAR (LIght Detection And Ranging) is one of these instruments. A Lidar is a ground-based active remote sensing instrument that is similar to radar but operates in the ultraviolet, optical, or infrared range. During lidar measurements, laser pulses are sent into the atmosphere, the backscattered photons are collected by a telescope and then detected by photomultiplier tubes. Measurements of the ozone vertical distribution are carried out using a DIfferential Absorption Lidar (DIAL). The high spatial resolution of the receiving signal gives us the opportunity to collect more data to retrieve the ozone profile, and is the big advantage of lidars over satellites.

Observations of stratospheric ozone have been carried out using the DIAL for more than 20 years in Eureka, Nunavut at the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL). The DIAL system measures ozone by obtaining back-scattered light from two laser wavelengths. One wavelength is in a spectral region with a high absorption for ozone (308 nm), and the other with a low absorption (353 nm). The transmitted laser beam undergoes Rayleigh scattering in the atmosphere and the back-scattered photons are detected by the lidar receiver. Ozone density profiles can be derived from the back-scattered photon measurements.


PhD Student Ghazal Farhani operating the Ozone DIAL. Image Credit: Dr. Emily McCullough

During 2009 and 2010, the laser component of the lidar was replaced and several other components of the lidar were upgraded. As of fall 2014, many of these components have been reinstalled. The refurbished DIAL’s first measurements were made by Dr. Alexey Thikhorimov (Dalhousie University) in February/March 2015 during the ACE/OSIRIS Arctic Validation Campaign.


PhD student Ghazal Farhani checking the Ozone DIAL’s telescope and making sure it’s ready for work.

In the February/March 2016 ACE/OSIRIS Arctic Validation Campaign, Dr. Emily McCullough and I joined Dr. Alexey Thikhomirov to take more measurements. As mentioned above, the DIAL system has been gone through hardware and software replacements. As a result, the data collected from the upgraded system should be validated as well. My PhD thesis will involve learning how to operate the system, and validating the new data. We hope this upgrade will give us better insight into how Ozone concentrations are evolving in the Arctic.

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Is there an Arctic ozone hole?

By Kristof Bognar
PhD Candidate, U. of Toronto

When scientists speak of the ‘ozone hole’, they usually mean the large region of low stratospheric ozone concentration that develops above Antarctica each Southern Hemisphere spring (August–October). These occur because conditions over Antarctica are favorable for ozone destruction. Strong westerly winds, or jet streams, above the Southern Ocean circle the continent creating a persistent polar vortex that isolates the air above Antarctica (a twin to the Arctic polar vortex). As this isolated air gets colder and colder, Polar Stratospheric Clouds (PSCs) can form.  PSCs are made up of water ice or nitric acid particles, and reactions occur on the surfaces of these particles that release chlorine compounds from reservoir species.

Polar Stratospheric Clouds

Polar Stratospheric Clouds (PSCs) above Norway. Since these clouds are at very high altitudes (15000-25000 m), they receive and reflect sunlight from below the horizon. Photo: Ivar Marthinusen, via

Chlorine then builds up inside the vortex, and when the Sun rises again in the spring, the molecules are destroyed by photolysis. The released Cl atoms then break down ozone via the reaction cycle pictured below. Since the air above the pole is isolated until the vortex breaks up in late spring, large scale ozone destruction continues as long as it’s cold enough (below -78 °C) for PSCs to exist.


Reactions between chlorine and ozone. A single chlorine atom can destroy thousands of ozone molecules. Source

The atmosphere above the North Pole is much less isolated than the air over Antarctica. The northern polar jet passes over land instead of ocean, and the uneven topography creates a meandering, wavy jet stream pattern and an irregular, variable vortex. The mixing of polar and mid-latitude air prevents the arctic stratosphere from becoming too cold, so PSCs are much less likely to form or persist than in the south. While the underlying chemical processes are the same above both poles, the differences in the evolution of the polar vortex lead to radically different outcomes for stratospheric ozone concentrations.


Daily total ozone concentrations above Antarctica in September 2011 (Southern Hemisphere spring). The blue areas represent ozone depleted air that correlates well with the location of the polar vortex. Note the relatively regular shape and size of these blue areas. Source

Ozone is destroyed above the Arctic every spring, but the net loss is far less than what would be required for an ozone hole.The benchmark total ozone concentration for an ozone hole is 220 Dobson Units (DU). Normal ozone levels are roughly 300 DU globally. Over Antarctica ozone concentrations drop to an average of 100 DU every spring. In the Arctic, however, such dramatic ozone loss is unprecedented, and this is due to the local meteorology.


Daily total ozone concentrations above the Arctic in March 2011 (Northern Hemisphere spring). Once again, the blue areas represent ozone depleted air inside the polar vortex. Note the irregular shapes: the Arctic vortex is more variable than its Antarctic pair. Ozone depletion is also less severe, even though 2011 was a record year in the Arctic. Source.

What’s more, due to transport of warmer, ozone rich air into the vortex in the winter, ozone concentrations in the Arctic are actually the highest in spring. It would require chemical loss comparable to Antarctic levels to bring concentrations even close to an ozone hole. That is, however, exactly what happened in 2010/2011. Due to unusually cold stratospheric conditions, ozone concentrations as low as 220 DU were observed in late March, prompting researchers to acknowledge the existence of the first (and so far only) Arctic ozone hole (Manney et al., 2011).


Monthly average ozone concentrations above both poles. Left: The Arctic in March 2011 (NH spring). Right: Antarctica in September 2011 (SH spring). 2011 saw the most Arctic ozone destruction on record, yet the resulting  ‘ozone hole’ is nowhere near as pronounced as above Antarctica. Source.

This event was also seen by ground based spectrometers at Eureka. These instruments only sample the portion of the vortex directly overhead, but even so they have observed ozone concentrations as low as 237 DU (Adams et al., 2011). 2011 was an exceptional year, since normal springtime ozone concentrations are around 400 DU above the Arctic.


Ozone measurements by two ground-based spectrometers at Eureka. The plots show the number of measurements that returned the given ozone concentrations between Feb. 24 and March 21. The grey columns represent the average values from 1999 to 2010, and the white columns are the 2011 measurements. From Adams et al., 2011.

The variability of the Arctic stratosphere is not well understood, and predicting when the next unusually cold winter might happen is difficult. In February it looked like this spring could bring record ozone losses again (Hand, 2016), but a sudden stratospheric warming in early March and a vortex split mid-March put an end to such speculations. In the future, as the stratosphere cools due to climate change, extremely cold winters might become even colder. So while the Arctic ozone hole has been a one-time phenomenon so far, it has the potential to become a more regular occurrence. Since plenty of people live in the northern parts of the US, Canada, Europe and Russia, strong UV radiation (the consequence of low ozone concentrations) could potentially be harmful if the polar vortex strayed over populated areas. Researchers are working tirelessly to evaluate these risks and predict when and if such events will occur.


Manney, Gloria L., et al. “Unprecedented Arctic ozone loss in 2011.” Nature 478.7370 (2011): 469-475.

Adams, C., et al. “Severe 2011 ozone depletion assessed with 11 years of ozone, NO2, and OClO measurements at 80 N.” Geophysical Research Letters 39.5 (2012).

Hand, Eric. “Record ozone hole may open over Arctic in the spring.” Science 351.6274 (2016): 650-650.

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Eureka’s dramatically changing sunlight

By Dan Weaver
Ph.D. Candidate, University of Toronto

You have likely noticed the days are getting longer.­1 It’s a welcome relief from the short dark days of winter. Toronto, for example, will enjoy over 12 hours of sunlight on April 20. Two months earlier there was only 9.5 hours of sunlight. The seasonal change in sunlight hours is small near the equator, and larger as latitude increases. In the high Arctic, where a Canadian research team is conducting fieldwork at the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), the sunlight shift is extreme.

Number of sunlight hours during the 2016 Eureka ACE/OSIRIS Validation Campaign.

The dramatic transition in sunlight hours between Polar Night and the Midnight Sun in Eureka, Nunavut. Lines note the start and end dates of the 2016 Eureka ACE/OSIRIS Validation Campaign.

The pre-campaign team arrived at PEARL on Saturday, February 20 – the last day of Polar Night. There hadn’t been any sunlight yet in 2016. That quickly changed. A week later, on February 27, the intensive phase research team had their first day at PEARL, having arrived the previous evening. Watching the sunrise and sunset was very convenient that day: sunrise was at 10:15 AM; the sun set at 3:45 PM. That’s five and a half hours of sunlight. On the intensive phase team’s last day at PEARL (March 18) there was over 12 hours of sunlight: the sun rose before 7 AM and set after 7 PM. A couple of team members will stay an additional two weeks. On their last day, April 1, the sun will rise at ~4:30 AM and set ~9:15 PM. There will be nearly 17 hours of sunlight!

Dan Weaver and Joseph Mendonca watch the sun rise on February 25, 2013 (Credit: Paul Loewen)

Dan Weaver and Joseph Mendonca watch the sun rise on February 25, 2013 (Credit: Paul Loewen)

A variety of PEARL instruments, such as the Cimel sun photometer and the Bruker 125 high resolution (FTIR) spectrometer, use sunlight to measure the atmosphere. As the sunlight hours increase, scientists are able to take more and more data. (Other instruments don’t depend on sunlight, but they have other limitations).

Sunrise and sunset times during the dramatic transition from Polar Night to Midnight Sun in Eureka, Nunavut (2016).

Sunrise (lower data) and sunset times (upper data) during the dramatic transition from Polar Night to Midnight Sun in Eureka, Nunavut (2016).

One of PEARL’s technicians wrote an interesting blog last year about his experience working in complete darkness during Polar Night, and watching as the landscape slowly revealed itself throughout February.

Why does this happen?

Every year, the Earth’s axis tilts the Polar Regions into complete darkness for part of the winter (“Polar Night”), and into 24-hour sunlight for part of the summer (“Midnight Sun”). This has profound impacts on the people who live and work there, the animals and plants, and the atmospheric chemistry. (Read about the impact sunlight has on ozone chemistry in a blog post here.)

Figure 1 - Axial_tilt_vs_tropical_and_polar_circles

Over the course of the year in the Polar Regions, the Earth’s axial tilt creates Polar Night during winter and the Midnight Sun during summer.

In Eureka, Nunavut – where PEARL is located – Polar Night lasts for 4 months. It is perpetually dark from mid-October until mid-February. (See a neat photo of Eureka taken during the start of Polar Night last year here.) On the other extreme, on the sun will rise on April 12 and stay in the sky until August 29. It will circle in the sky for four months.

Comparison of sunlight hours in Toronto, Yellowknife and Eureka

Comparison of sunlight hours in Toronto, Yellowknife and Eureka

I hope this puts the experience of our research team and the changing daylight hours you experience in a new light!

– Dan

Watching the sunrise from the roof of the PEARL Ridge Lab

Watching the sunrise from the roof of the PEARL Ridge Lab

Environment Canada truck travelling to the PEARL Ridge Lab shortly after sun rise.

Environment Canada truck travelling to the PEARL Ridge Lab shortly after sun rise.

Sources & Notes

Data for Toronto, Yellowknife and Eureka sunrise and sunset times were downloaded from the U.S. Naval Observatory.

Note 1: Sunlit-hours, not the actual length of the day. Though in a small way, that is also happening. The length of the day is continuously getting longer due to the influence of the moon.

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Why do scientists travel to Eureka during polar sunrise?

By Debora Griffin
PhD candidate, Department of Physics, University of Toronto

Every year at the end of February a group of scientists travels to Eureka, Nunavut, 80°N. On February 21st, when the Canadian Arctic ACE/OSIRIS validation campaign typically starts, the sun rises in Eureka above the horizon for the first time since October 20th. Every day, daylight hours increase at a rate between 20 min and 1 h per day, until the sun no longer sets on April 13th.

Up in Eureka, we perform measurements with ground-based instruments. Many of these instruments, which we are using for the validation campaign, use the solar spectrum to obtain information on specific gas concentrations in the atmosphere (mainly in the troposphere and stratosphere, i.e. roughly between 0-50 km from the Earth’s surface). The sunlight that travels through the Earth’s atmosphere is partially absorbed by different gases before it reaches our instruments’ detectors. Gases have characteristic absorption lines, which have different shapes and occur at different wavelengths (see Figure 1). This makes it possible to obtain information about the concentrations of different gases and distinguish between them.


Figure 1: Solar spectrum recorded with the Portable Atmospheric Research Interferometric Spectrometer for the Infrared (PARIS-IR) on 1 March 2015. The zoom shows the O3 absorption lines.

The elevation of the sun during spring is beneficial for solar spectral measurements, because the path of the sunlight to the detectors is very long; therefore absorption lines from atmospheric trace gases occur more strongly in the spectra. Spring is also the time when a stratospheric ozone hole can occur within the polar vortex.

Figure 2: Illustration of the chemical reactions responsible for polar ozone depletion due to Polar Stratospheric Clouds (PSCs).

Figure 2: Illustration of the chemical reactions responsible for polar ozone depletion due to Polar Stratospheric Clouds (PSCs).

The polar vortex is a cyclone (low pressure system), located in the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere over the polar regions. It has a very cold core which is strongest during winter and weakest during the summer months. Polar Stratospheric Clouds (PSC), which are the cause of polar ozone depletion, can form under very cold conditions (if the temperature is lower than -76°C) in the lower stratosphere around 20 km. These clouds make it possible for a chemical reaction (see Figure 2) to occur which results in diatomic halogens and nitric acid ( HNO3). In spring, when the sun rises, the bonds of the diatomic halogens break and form halogen radicals, which are responsible for the ozone depletion. Even a single halogen radical can destroy many ozone molecules, causing ozone depletion.

Figure 3: Polar sunrise in Eureka.

Figure 3: Polar sunrise in Eureka.

It is extremely important to take ground-based observations so far north to understand the atmospheric dynamics and chemistry within the polar vortex. The location of the polar vortex core varies quite a lot, but usually doesn’t reach latitudes much lower than the location of Eureka. Also, the very low water vapour content in the high Arctic atmosphere is beneficial for measuring solar spectra. This is because the absorption of sunlight due to water vapour is quite strong, which can render many absorption lines invisible. Finally, ozone depletion in the Arctic does impact the amount of ozone over southern Canada. The effect of low ozone can be seen in higher UV index reports.

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Here Comes the Sun!

Mike Maurice
PEARL Operator

My current tour in Eureka operating the PEARL facilities started during Polar Night. Shortly after New Years Day I arrived at Eureka, excited to be back at work. I enjoy the Arctic at all times of the year, so the fact that I was returning in the dead of winter didn’t bother me.


January 28th, 2015 12:38 pm –  Cape Hare is beautifully silhouetted against the first rays of Polar Twilight.


February 3rd, 2015 13:08 – A bit more sunlight and a nice pink glow in the distance. Check out that really wavy cloud! Might that be a gravity wave passing through?

Living and working in Polar Night, or Dark Season, has both advantages and challenges. The main advantage is that you really don’t need to worry about losing your sunglasses! The challenges we face are primarily the cold and darkness. The cold brings the potential for operational difficulties; be it with instruments, infrastructure, vehicles, and even to the operators themselves. Everything is at the mercy of the cold. Breakages occur, extra planning is required for working outdoors in extremely low temperatures, cumbersome clothing is required when working outdoors. However, it is for the love of the job that we venture out and face the elements. The darkness is more of a mental challenge. During Polar Night, every hour of the day looks the same, and it can be difficult to differentiate between the time of day; 06:00 looks exactly like 15:00. This perpetual night can often lead to a feeling of being overtired during the waking/working hours.


February 5, 2015 10:54  – Just a tiny bit more!

My current tour is a little over half completed, and as the days keep going, the dawn light is ever increasing, and always a beautiful sight. As the sun returns to Eureka and the surrounding area, familiar geographical sights are visible again: Cape Hare, Blacktop Mountain, Slidre Fiord, and Axel Heiberg Island to the West. With each day, the beauty of the Arctic unfolds a little bit more, and reminds me of the reasons why I love my job with CANDAC.

As we return to the Land of the Midnight Sun, the annual Sunrise Campaign is scheduled to arrive in a few days, bringing with it scientists and researchers excited to discover what activity the atmosphere has for them to observe this year. I am honoured to be here this year to provide operational support for them, and I look forward to their arrival with every glimpse of midday light.


February 16th, 2015 13:22 – We’ve got blue skies!


February 16th, 2015 15:44 – The sun begins to set again, but in a few days it will finally rise above the horizon!

Mike Maurice
PEARL Operator
Eureka, NU
17 February 2015

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PEARL at Polar Twilight


A full moon shines brightly at the PEARL Ridge lab while the Weather Station lights twinkle in the distance. CREATE AAS Post-doc, Sophie Tran, took this shot last November during Polar Twilight – a few weeks before full Polar Night set in and she went home. However, now that Polar Night is ending and sunlight is beginning to return to Eureka, the CREATE AAS students and researchers will be flocking to PEARL in the coming weeks. Next week’s post will feature Mike Maurice, a CANDAC employee, and what he has been doing during the Polar Night to get everything ready for the upcoming Sunrise Campaign. Stay tuned!

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Detection of Biomass Burning Pollution in the Arctic

Erik Lutsch
PhD. Student, University of Toronto

Biomass burning is the burning of vegetation and occurs in North America and Europe mostly in the form of wildfires. Every year, hundreds of forest fires burn throughout the northern hemisphere burning thousands of hectares of vegetation. The burning of vegetation emits a substantial amount of aerosols and various trace gas pollutants. Trace gases may have a considerable effect on climate. The emission of trace gases changes the chemistry of the atmosphere and the trace gases can act as greenhouse gases. Atmospheric circulation patterns have the ability to transport pollutants from fires in Canada, United States, Russia and Siberia to the high Arctic within several days.

The amount of each emitted trace gas is of great interest to atmospheric modelers as the amount of each species must be known in order to determine and properly model the chemistry of the atmosphere. Emission sources from fossil-fuel burning are generally located in populated areas and have relatively constant emissions throughout the year. There has been a substantial number of studies using either ground-based or satellite instruments to monitor human emissions of carbon monoxide (CO) and other fossil-fuel burning products. The measured emissions can then be extrapolated to other regions in order to constrain the budget on fossil-fuel emissions. Estimating the total emissions from biomass burning is somewhat more complicated. The number of wildfires that occur each year are highly variable and the emissions from each fire are dependent on the type of vegetation burned.

Image of the smoke plumes near Moscow, Russia taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on Aug. 12, 2010. Source: NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC.

Image of the smoke plumes near Moscow, Russia taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on Aug. 12, 2010. Source: NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC.

In August 2010, unseasonably high temperatures and drought led to hundreds of wildfires near Moscow, Russia. The smoke plumes from these fires were transported to the Arctic and detected at the Polar Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) located at Eureka, Nunavut. The Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectrometer at PEARL measures the solar absorption spectrum. From the measured absorption spectrum, the concentration of trace gases in the atmosphere can be determined and provides a means of monitoring pollutants in the Arctic. Transport of the smoke plume from the source of the fire to the Arctic can then be detected by enhancements above ambient levels of the trace gas of interest. Trace gas species such as CO, hydrogen cyanide (HCN) and ethane (C2H6) are abundant in biomass burning smoke plumes and have long atmospheric lifetimes, from several weeks to months.

Time series of CO total columns measured by the FTIR at PEARL. The black line shows a polynomial fit to the data. Enhancements due to forest fires in Russia are observed in July 2008 and August 2010.

Time series of CO total columns measured by the FTIR at PEARL. The black line shows a polynomial fit to the data. Enhancements due to forest fires in Russia are observed in July 2008 and August 2010.

A time series is shown above for CO measured at PEARL. The main sources of CO are fossil-fuel and biomass burning, while the main sink is due to reaction with the hydroxyl radical OH. The measurements of CO shown here illustrate the seasonal trends.CO is transported from lower-latitudes to the Arctic by the Brewer-Dobson circulation, and the largest abundances occur in the early spring as a result of its accumulation in the Arctic during the winter months. However, during the polar night, reaction with OH does not occur since sunlight is required. At the end of the polar night when sunlight returns to the Arctic, reaction with OH begins and CO abundances decline. During the summer months, biomass burning contributes to a considerable amount of CO pollution as can be seen by the large enhancements above background levels. Particularly evident are the Russian fires of July 2008 and August 2010.

HYSPLIT backwards trajectory showing the path of the smoke plume from the August 2010 Russian fires to PEARL.

HYSPLIT backwards trajectory showing the path of the smoke plume from the August 2010 Russian fires to PEARL[2].

From the detection of these enhancements, we can confirm the source of the airmass from a trajectory model. The figure above shows the Hybrid Single-Particle Lagrangian Integrated Trajectory (HYSPLIT) model output. A backwards trajectory is shown illustrating the source of the airmass at different altitudes. The black box highlights the area of the August 2010 Russian fires near Moscow and confirms the source of the observed enhancement. This trajectory also gives an estimate of the travel time of the smoke plume of about 9 days.

Not only do FTIR measurements provide a means of monitoring trace gas abundances and fire pollution in the Arctic, but may also allow for the amount of each pollutant emitted at the fire source to be estimated. This is characterized by an emission factor which is the mass of a trace gas emitted per mass of burned vegetation. The abundance of each trace gas emitted during biomass burning are correlated. That is, the amount of a species like HCN or C2H6 emitted is proportional to the amount of CO emitted. The ratio of the abundance of each species to CO can be determined from our FTIR measurements to find what is known as the enhancement ratio. This enhancement ratio can then be converted to an emission factor using known emission factors for CO.

Emission factors are commonly used to estimate the amount of a trace gas emitted during a fire event which may then be represented in a chemical transport model. These models predict the evolution of a trace gas as it is affected by transport and chemistry and hence its impact on air quality and climate. Accurate knowledge of these emission factors are required to properly budget the sources of trace gases in chemical transport models. Measurements of biomass burning emissions provides a means of investigating the properties of these emissions, allowing for more accurate representation in chemical transport models and better assessing their impact on climate in the Arctic.

1. Viatte, C., et al. “Five years of CO, HCN, C2H6, C2H2, CH3OH, HCOOH and H2CO total columns measured in the Canadian high Arctic.” Atmospheric Measurement Techniques 7.6 (2014): 1547-1570.
2. Viatte, C., et al. “Measurements of CO, HCN, and C2H6 total columns in smoke plumes transported from the 2010 Russian boreal forest fires to the Canadian high Arctic.” Atmosphere-Ocean 51.5 (2013): 522-531.
3. Viatte, C., et al. “Identifying fire plumes in the Arctic with tropospheric FTIR measurements and transport models.” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions 14.19 (2014): 26349-26401.
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An Interview with David Serkoak Part 2: Inuit and Researchers working together to help further Arctic Science

Shannon Hicks and Dan Weaver

The Arctic and the Inuit have both been changed by events occurring over the last century.  The Inuit have been uprooted, relocated, and their culture forever altered. The Arctic ecosystem and environment is rapidly shifting due to climate change. The second section of our interview with David Serkoak discusses how these developments in the Arctic are impacting the Inuit, and how scientists from many nations can become involved with the Inuit in order to study the consequences of these changes.

One of the first questions I asked David was how the Inuit felt about scientists coming to Nunavut.  According to David, the first groups of scientists came to the Arctic and simply ran away afterwards without crediting the people that made their work possible. Now, the Inuit are starting to develop a working relationship with scientists that come to Nunavut. This is mostly due to the fact that the Arctic College and the government of Nunavut are becoming more involved with the research being conducted there. In turn, more researchers are reaching out to the communities to study Inuit health practices, oceanic ice, and local climate variations. Members of the Inuit communities now act as assistants to researchers in the field and are credited for the work that they do. When asked how researchers can become more involved with the Inuit, David said, “There are dangers out there. So Inuit can play a role using traditional knowledge to help you do your job properly … and I think that is coming along slowly.”  As an example, he mentioned one group that visited Labrador two summers ago:

“I think it was a group from Japan collecting rocks. They would go out every day, and they would have an idea of where they’d like to go, but they’d need protection from bears – black bears, polar bears – every-day things. They had polar bear monitors (local people) with them so they didn’t have to worry about that.”

One of the primary areas that David would like to see scientists work together with the Inuit is in studying climate change. The hotter springs and summers are changing the migration patterns of the animals in Nunavut. Many smaller animals that previously have never been seen above 60 degrees latitude are slowly roaming northward. The once predictable migration routes of the larger animals have also changed. This directly impacts the Inuit hunting communities who rely on regular movements of the local fauna. Additionally, the receding and shifting ice floes have resulted in several instances where hunters have gotten lost or died.

“I’ve been living in Iqaluit since 1989. The ice is almost not there. In the fall, you can still see the ships coming in. It had never been heard of before. By Christmas the ice is still dangerous – you can walk on the ice, but it is dangerous to go across the big bay. It’s changed the way you hunt. Some people have died. For instance, one very good hunter went to the floes and he misjudged a soft spot in the middle of winter and got up again – got up on the ice and survived, but he lost both legs in the end.”

Patterns that the Inuit have relied on for centuries are no longer valid, and a partnership with scientists would help both sides understand climate change’s effects. As David says, “There is change … no doubt. And sometimes, [it’s] not very good. We all know it is not going to go in reverse. We have to go with the flow and learn how to adapt to it. “


David demonstrating drum techniques to CREATE-AAS students and faculty.

David has years of experience in developing programs where Inuit and people from other cultures can work together. As a teacher, and later a teaching VP and later in his career a full time elementary school principal, he has been a huge contributor to adding Inuit culture and language to schools in Nunavut. At one point in time the schools were run predominantly by white Canadians – “the only time [the Inuit community] was invited to the schools was when kids were in trouble.” By getting Inuit families more involved in school activities, such as drum dancing and throat singing, he was able to create a bridge between the white teachers and the Inuit parents. Now there is more of a balance between the two peoples. Both white Canadians and Inuit teachers run schools, and classes are often available in Inuktitut until third grade. There are even a few schools in Pond Inlet, Nunavut that are completely run by Inuit. The combination of all of these changes excites David – “I never thought we’d see that in our lifetime … I think there is a good partnership around the table.”

Another positive change in Inuit culture is directly related to scientists’ involvement with the Inuit over the last few decades – increasing numbers of Inuit students are getting interested in science. According to David, “in the past 10-15 years, there is more emphasis on science [in schools] – looking at medicine, looking at research – the interest is there. One of my former students in Ottawa is doing computer science at Ottawa University.”

This partnership between the Inuit and scientists from all over the world is crucial to solving problems relevant to everyone on Earth.  One of the ways that David believes that people can facilitate this change is by “[leaving] some of the research for the Inuit and the communities. Getting involved [with the community] is very important – not just work, work, work … see the community, mix with the community.” As we gain a greater understanding of the Inuit and their culture, we will be able to utilize their knowledge and experience to further scientific goals. In return, all the work that scientists are doing in the field is opening a new realm of possibilities for the Inuit people and their progenitors. As David put it, student can now say “I want to become a researcher too.”


David and Shannon after the interview. Picture courtesy of Dan Weaver.


In closing, I would like to thank David for providing us with this opportunity to learn about your culture and beliefs. It was an amazing experience and we were delighted to have you join us.

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An Interview with David Serkoak Part 1: Inuit Drum Dancing and Culture

Shannon Hicks and Dan Weaver

The Connaught Summer Institute in Arctic Science was privileged to host David Serkoak, who spoke with students about Inuit culture and traditions. David is a respected Inuit elder and has been an integral part of reviving Inuit language (Inuktitut) and culture in Arctic schools.  Over the course of the summer school we learned about his trials during the Inuit relocation period, the history of Nunavut’s founding, and various aspects of Inuit culture. All of this culminated in a wonderful evening of learning Inuit music and drum dancing! At the end of the week, he was kind enough to grant us an interview. We gained a deeper understanding of his passion for drum dancing and Inuit songs, as well as his thoughts about science in the Arctic. This post (part one of two) will feature David’s motivation for teaching drum dancing and detail the Inuit traditions of drum-making and song-crafting.

David teaching the CREATE-AAS students how to drum dance.

David teaching CREATE-AAS students how to drum dance.

David’s passion for drumming comes from his father. Now, he wants to pass on his knowledge to the next Inuit generation. When asked why, he said “I realized that my language and my culture is fading right before my eyes and I realized that the only way I could leave something for my grandchildren was to teach them – like my father did for me.” When David was teaching at his high school, he told his students that they too must pass on their new-found knowledge to their own families. Most of them started with no prior experience and were possibly the first of their family in at least 2 generations to learn. “[The students] get excited to be the first and their parents do too. That makes me excited too.” David starts his students with the basics, which some students then expand upon with their own styles. “As long as they learn the basics of traditional drumming – the sky’s the limit.”

While the dances the students learn are traditional, the drums they use have been made by David using a more modern method. They use contemporary materials for the drum cloth and bindings; however, he says that the sound of the drum remains authentic, very close to those made with traditional materials. The only differences in the new drums are in the sizes, fabric for the tops, and handles.

Although the traditional drum was made by a single person, certain steps required the help of others. First, the skin was fleshed, cleaned, and soaked in water for a few days. Then, when it had soaked enough, the hair was peeled off and it was ready to stretch; stretching the skin around the rim of the drum required the aid of several people! Finally, the skin was tightened and held in place with braided sinew. In order the keep the skin moist and pliable, it was stored separately from the rest of the drum in a sealed wrapping. During a dance, someone was assigned to tune the drum because it had to be tuned every 3 dances. Using David’s method, it only takes one person to construct the drum, and then tune it. All of his students are taught to tune their drums, as well as play.

After 1 week of practice, some CREATE - AAS students performed a drum dance for the rest of us.

After one week of practice, some CREATE-AAS students performed a drum dance for the rest of us.

In addition to talking with David about the drum dancing, we also spoke about Inuit songs. Unfortunately, most of his generation, including himself, no longer know how to compose traditional songs. They are very difficult to write, and the rules were never inherited. “When we were young we made lots of songs, but when we moved that interest stopped.”

According to Inuit tradition, each song belongs to one person and is “a part of [them].” People of the same name can also learn each other’s songs. There are songs that are owned by no one; however, there are no communally owned songs. Yet, during a dance, a person may decide to lend their song to another. Most songs come from one’s experiences. For example: successful hunts, or life and death experiences. He likened listening to his father’s song to “seeing a painting.” David could “feel his [father’s] emotions, how optimistic he was that day … how worried he was for his family.”

David playing the accordian towards the end of a fun night of singing and dancing.

David playing the accordion towards the end of a fun night of singing and dancing.

David also shared a story with us about his namesake. His namesake once hinted to David that he would be the owner of his song. Because the two shared a name, the namesake “can tell me how to be a man like him.” His namesake said:

“ ‘you will be more aggressive than me, you will look after yourself more than me, and you’ll be more successful than me. Always share what you have – I want you to share everything. Make sure to leave something for the animals – it will bring you luck.’ ”

“I was grateful for that wisdom.” David has obviously taken this advice to heart and it shows in his enthusiasm for sharing his knowledge and passions with the Inuit people. He says “when I’m not performing [drum dancing], I’m writing or talking about it.” The CREATE-AAS students were grateful that he was willing to provide us with a window into his culture and the opportunity to learn drum dancing from him. It is not an experience that any of us are likely to forget.



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A Spontaneous Solar Eclipse Viewing

Last Thursday, there was a partial solar eclipse! Part of the eclipse was visible from London, Ontario, where some of the CREATE trainees attend Western University. We all had busy days, so didn’t plan in advance to view the eclipse. No big events, no great preparation.


A closer view of the partial solar eclipse as seen from Santa Cruz, California. Those sunspots are visible in our projection!

Surprisingly, several of the students ended up finishing their day’s activities just in time for the moon’s shadow to start making its way across the sun. Not one to dismiss such an opportunity, Emily jabbed a tiny pinhole in a piece of cardboard, and ran out the door to find some buddies for a quick view of the eclipse.

You can make a pinhole camera yourself to safely view a projection of the sun. You can make much nicer ones than we made, using instructions from Sky and Telescope Magazine or buy a Sunspotter. Ours was just like this. But hey – we were in a hurry, and it worked! We tested it out the through the lab window (which conveniently faces west, toward the setting sun)… but there were too many trees in the way for us to get a good view. To the outdoors!

Emily balancing precariously on the rocks while projecting the eclipse onto Sham's paper. Astronomy in action!

Emily balancing precariously on the rocks while projecting the eclipse onto Sham’s paper. Astronomy in action!

While Sham and Jeff sprinted off to get their jackets (you can imagine how hard they had to be convinced to go see an eclipse “Right now! Let’s go!”), there was just time to put together a Learning Technologies refracting telescope kit. Thanks, Dad! I knew quick access to the pile of telescope kits in my lab would come in very handy one day. The telescope let us magnify the image that we were projecting, so we had a larger view.

There’s a very handy intersection at the Western Gates entrance to campus with a lovely view up the hill toward Brescia college, and we got a clear view of the sun from there.

The telescope projected the sun clearly onto the paper we’d brought with us. This was astronomy in action. No tripods, no fancy setup: just Sham and Emily balanced on the rocks, and people taking looks as they walked past. Jeff and Yuan Jun helpfully took most of the photos you see here.

Sham holding the paper so Emily could project the image. The eclipse is just on the left side of the sun.

A slightly closer view of the projection. The eclipse is just on the left side of the sun. Sunspots are visible towards the center of the sun!

We had a nice 10 minute astronomy session before the sun set below the tower of Brescia College. This was plenty of time to see the moon’s shadow taking a big round chunk out of the left side of the image of the sun. We even saw some huge sunspots in our projection, which was an unexpected treat! Of course, if we’d looked at beforehand, the sunspots would not have been a surprise. The horizontal shadows across the sun’s image are shadows from some clouds low on the horizon; we think they add to the artsy factor in the view!

The projection of the eclipse. The bands across the top are shadows of clouds moving across the sun.

By a half-hour later, the sun had set completely, and we were all back to work crunching our atmospheric measurements.

Emily McCullough
PhD. Candidate, University of Western Ontario

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