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Jens Ehn, assistant professor at Centre for Earth Observation Science, gathers ice samples and data at the Sea-ice Environment Research Facility at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, March 1, 2013. (John Woods for The Globe and Mail)
Jens Ehn, assistant professor at Centre for Earth Observation Science, gathers ice samples and data at the Sea-ice Environment Research Facility at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, March 1, 2013. (John Woods for The Globe and Mail)

Manitoba research centre tackles tough questions on vanishing Arctic sea ice Add to ...

Although he is often working in the Arctic and divides his time between Denmark, Greenland and Winnipeg, Dr. Rysgaard adds that the newly built research facility at the University of Manitoba will be an essential platform for tracing the hidden chemistry in the sea ice and its relevance to the global climate system.

“We have people coming from all over the world to do experiments,” he says. “You can do a lot of things here that cannot be done in the field ... or in very many places.”

‘Something really serious is going on in the Arctic’

Thinning ice produces melt ponds that sit atop the ice and effectively become windows, allowing light to penetrate into the sea below. Last year researchers began reporting vast blooms of algae erupting under the ice, where they can rapidly exhaust the nutrients in the water’s upper layers.

Such phenomena are the province of Marcel Babin, a Canada Excellence Research Chair who specializes in remote sensing of the Arctic at Laval University and who collaborates with the University of Manitoba group.

Dr. Babin relied on satellite imagery to estimate the concentration of plankton in the ocean based on colour changes in the water and used this to calculate the ocean’s biological productivity. Of key importance is the so-called spring bloom, an eruption of algae along the edge of the sea ice that occurs when sunlight begins returning to the region every spring. The bloom, which feeds off nutrients that have accumulated over the winter, accounts for much of the productivity of the Arctic Ocean.

Now Dr. Babin and his colleagues are watching to see if the bloom moves northward as the sea ice retreats. The question is whether the algae will keep blooming all the way to the North Pole as each spring brings thinner, more transparent ice – or whether it will be stopped short by limitations in the environment.

“That’s important because it will tell us about the potential for the Arctic Ocean to become more or less productive,” Dr. Babin says.

A more immediate change that Dr. Barber and his colleagues have observed is the increase in the speed of pieces of ice moving in the southern Beaufort Sea. This is simply because, with more open water, large blocks of multi-year sea ice have less in their way, allowing them to drift at higher speeds and then pile up with more force when they finally collide with something. They carry too much momentum for ice breakers to handle, so they pose a new threat to drilling operations that are increasingly expected to move into northern waters.

The finding came about as a result of work that the centre has been doing for oil and gas exploration companies, which Dr. Barber sees as an important part of the centre’s mandate.

“Overall the relationship works well so long as the university stays at arm’s length,” he says. “We want them to have the best information they can possibly have.”

For Dr. Barber, it is clear that the rapid changes under way in the North carry vast implications for resource development. It is the role of scientists, he says, to help ensure that the development is done in a sustainable manner that places a high priority on the ecosystems and peoples of the Arctic.

The interconnections between science, environment, industry and culture are evident in the naming of the new research facility after Nellie Cournoyea, a former premier of the Northwest Territories and now CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, which seeks the meaningful participation of the western Inuit in the development of northern resources.

Dr. Barber speaks of the strong ties that have developed between scientists at the centre and the people who call the Arctic home. But he is also looking to a larger community, encompassing the rest of the globe, that is connected to the sea ice in a myriad of subtle ways that he and his colleagues now hope to uncover.

“I’m very much convinced that something really serious is going on in the Arctic,” Dr. Barber says. “We need to inform the planet about what it is.”

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