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Ice and Oil
Driving Discovery and Insight

Ice and Oil

The University of Manitoba is taking the lead in understanding how ice and oil mix.

By Sean Moore

Drilling in the Arctic will happen. The University of Manitoba’s $32 million Churchill Marine Observatory will help ensure it happens responsibly.

On the surface, the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico have little in common. Underneath, however, they share one desirable and potentially dangerous connection: oil.

Think back to April 20, 2010. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig was burning 66 kilometers off Louisiana’s coast in the Gulf of Mexico. Two days later it crumpled into the waves. Eleven men died and 378 million litres of oil ultimately corrupted the ocean. On the single most demanding day of the response, 6,000 vessels, 82 helicopters, 20 fixed wing aircraft and 47,849 people were deployed. The oil flowed for 87 days.

Now picture that catastrophe unfolding in the unconquerable vastness of the Arctic, far from ports and bases. If it happened in the Southern Beaufort Sea just before the winter freeze, no company or nation could send response teams. The oil would flow for roughly eight months before help arrived.

Total impact? Unknown.

The Arctic contains an estimated 20 to 30 per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil. Large-scale oil drilling will take place there; the U.S. has already granted Shell Oil the right to drill up to six exploratory wells off Alaska and that company is also exploring opportunities in Greenland, Norway and Russia, a country that is also actively engaged in Arctic oil exploration. [Update: Shell Oil has recently decided to scrap their plans to explore and drill in the Arctic.]

The idea of drilling in the Arctic upsets many, including former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore who called it “insane.”

But “development of resources is not wrong,” counters David Barber [BPE/82, MNRM/89], Canada Research Chair in Arctic- System Science and associate dean of research in the Clayton H. Riddell Faculty of Environment, Earth, and Resources. “What’s wrong is to do it without any thought to sustainability and the protection of the environment.”

“I don’t think it is a reasonable position to say that we will never develop the Arctic.” David Barber

Oil spills in the Arctic, the Distinguished Professor adds, are not a matter of if, but when.

“And we have to be prepared for that—it’s the responsible thing to do. We have to put a real cost on the impacts we have on the environment, and scientific research can help with that process. That’s why we are building the Churchill Marine Observatory.”


The story of the Churchill Marine Observatory (CMO) begins with the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Earth Observation Science (CEOS). Which begins with David Barber.

Barber created CEOS in 1994 after negotiating it into his contract. At the time it was just him, a half-time technician and two graduate students. In 2003, the department of geological sciences, the department

of environment and geography and the Natural Resources Institute merged into a new faculty, later named the Clayton H. Riddell Faculty of Environment, Earth, and Resources in honour of the alumnus and donor. CEOS resides here and today has 125 faculty, research professors, technical and administrative staff and approximately 50 graduate students. It is currently the world’s largest research centre dedicated to sea ice.

“CEOS has become a very strong global leader in its field because of the commitment of the University of Manitoba to create an environment that allows us to thrive. I’m basically the captain of the team putting this thing together. I cajole and prod and push, but it’s the team that makes it happen. Nothing can happen with a team of one, but with a team of many, all going the same direction, magic can happen,” Barber says.

The idea for creating CMO first developed in 2007 when Barber was leading a group of over 350 scientists from 27 countries in an International Polar Year project in the Arctic. The research was prolific. It was in that atmosphere that Barber began thinking about creating a marine observatory in the Arctic. “I just kind of thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a facility like this in Churchill?’”

Unfortunately, in 2007 CEOS was neither large enough nor integrated enough to create the facility. So they grew, most notably with the 2010 addition of Søren Rysgaard, Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Arctic Geomicrobiology and Climate Change, one of the inaugural 19 CERCs in the country.

In 2012, CEOS joined their academic and research initiatives with the Greenland Climate Research Centre and the Arctic Research Centre in Denmark to establish the Arctic Science Partnership. That year also saw the opening of the Sea-ice Environmental Research Facility, directed by professor Feiyue Wang. The facility allows CEOS researchers to grow and study homemade sea ice.

With the team in place, CEOS then sought funding from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI), a federal granting body. The CMO proposal was approved in full, becoming the largest CFI grant ever awarded to the U of M.

“It really confirms the world-class status of our group here,” Barber says.

CMO was officially announced on July 6, 2015, and when it opens in 2017 it will be the only facility in the world that will allow scientists to run controlled experiments on ice in actual Arctic seawater. That research will be scalable throughout the circumpolar world.

The observatory will give U of M researchers, their partners at the University of Calgary, University of Victoria, Dalhousie University, Université Laval, and other international research teams, unprecedented insight into the Arctic ecosystem and how we can protect it on that inevitable day when oil spills from a supertanker or oil rig.


In June of this year the G7 nations pledged to stop creating energy from fossil fuels by the next century. The goal is laudable, but not likely achievable, says Barber. We can’t change our entire energy infrastructure in 85 years.

Barber’s views are corroborated by Vaclav Smil, a Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the U of M’s department of environment and geography, whose fans include billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

“There is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil,” Gates has said.

Smil notes that modern renewable energy sources currently account for less than five per cent of the world’s energy supply and it will take them decades upon decades to surpass the energy fossil fuels produce. Adopting renewables would also require “a fundamental reshaping of our modern energy infrastructure.”

Even if renewable energy were free, Smil explains, it would be “economically unthinkable” for nations and corporations to abandon their investments in a global, fossil fuel infrastructure worth $20 trillion.

In short, we are a long way from replacing oil, gas and coal, and the Arctic offers a bounty of resources.

For many, that is a painful reality. For so long the Arctic was impenetrable. Revered in our anthem, it’s where our soul as a nation resides. But climate change is making the North more accessible. And that changes things.

“I don’t think it is a reasonable position to say that we will never develop the Arctic,” Barber says. “Besides oil and gas there are other resources in the Arctic—do we not develop them either? What do the Inuit do in terms of their local economy? Maybe there are areas of the Arctic we shouldn’t develop—places where we should create marine reserves—but to say we shouldn’t develop the Arctic at all, I don’t think makes sense.”

There’s no rush though. As Barber notes, the oil isn’t going anywhere. So wait 30 years for technologies to progress and for CMO to gather the required knowledge.

“I think you can develop resources in the Arctic responsibly. If I didn’t think it was possible, I would never have invested all the effort to create a research centre to help inform the process.”

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