Technology & Science

Converted shipping containers being used as high-tech mobile science labs in Arctic

Research facilities will be powered by wind turbines, solar panels

Posted: September 13, 2015

Shipping containers converted into mobile scientific labs will operate on solar and wind power. (Arctic Research Foundation)

The forces of nature that so often dictate how life unfolds in the Arctic may also help give Canadian scientists new opportunities to work in the North, particularly in remote coastal areas.

Small mobile labs capable of harnessing wind and solar power are arriving in the Nunavut communities of Cambridge Bay and Gjoa Haven for testing, with hopes they can be more fully used in the Kitikmeot region next year.

In setting up these facilities, there is also hope of forging stronger links with people who live in the local communities.


Shipping containers are being converted into the high-tech, movable outposts for science. They are being created through a multimillion-dollar project spearheaded by the Arctic Research Foundation, one of the non-government partners in the ongoing efforts to find and explore the 19th-century shipwrecks of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition.

"As the Arctic opens up, there is a great need for a lot of science, but it's very expensive to get there, it's hard," says foundation co-founder Jim Balsillie, the former chairman and co-chief executive of BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion.

"You've got a very narrow window to do it. So the approach was really to begin to build more and more shared infrastructure that supports scientific work."

Six shipping containers decked out with 15 solar panels each and equipped to support two wind turbines are arriving via water from southern Canada. Five will be in Cambridge Bay and one is bound for Gjoa Haven, on King William Island.

The Arctic Research Foundation equipped a former fishing trawler and transformed it into the Martin Bergmann scientific research vessel. (Parks Canada)

That container-turned-archeology-lab could eventually be positioned on an island near the wreck site of the Franklin ship HMS Erebus, which was found in the shallow waters of Wilmot and Crampton Bay a year ago, or perhaps placed on a barge near the wreck site, says Adrian Schimnowski, the foundation's operations director.

Another container will be equipped for marine science, complete with aquariums and equipment that can measure heart rates of fish and other aquatic animals.


High-tech communication

"Normally, you don't have a lab like that in a remote place where you can actually catch fish or different types of animals, put them in the water and monitor them and conduct experiments on breathing rates and then be able to release them back in the wild without any harm," says Schimnowski.

The nine-metre-long containers are insulated and wired for satellite communication. They aren't intended as living spaces — containers decked out for sleeping accommodation may come later — but do have composting toilets and water purification equipment that can take seawater or water from a lake and make it suitable for drinking or scientific work.

Scientists have worked from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St. Laurent but larger vessels like it can't get into shallower, coastal waters. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

They can also provide power to supply 10 or 12 tents for scientists.

When the solar panels can take advantage of 24-hour sun, they can produce energy equivalent to what a house in southern Canada would use during the day, says Schimnowski.

A battery bank will store power. Diesel generators designed for extreme cold will be on hand as backup.

"The reason to go with sun and wind is it's just hard to transport fuel drums from place to place. It's very expensive," says Schimnowski.

"The idea is certainly to take advantage of what the environment provides and if you do that in the Arctic, then you'll have success. If you don't work with the environment, you try to push boundaries, then you run into issues."

The container-lab project flows from the foundation's work creating the research vessel Martin Bergmann and received $1.75 million over two years from the federal government, says Schimnowski. The foundation is matching those funds.

Cheaper than an icebreaker

Donald McLennan, head of monitoring science for the newly formed federal government agency Polar Knowledge Canada, says the mobile labs are an "excellent initiative" that will help fill a gap in Arctic research infrastructure in coastal areas.

For land-based research, the infrastructure is "pretty good," he says. But in shore areas that can't be accessed by bigger vessels, that's not the case.

"The mobile trailers that ARF is sponsoring will begin to fill an important need for northern research infrastructure," McLennan says, noting they will also provide opportunities to involve members of local communities in the research.

There's also a fiscal advantage in a mobile lab.

A mobile archeology lab will be located near the wreck site of HMS Erebus, perhaps on a barge or a nearby island. (Parks Canada)

It can "provide researchers with a far more economical tool than … expensive science-capable icebreakers than can cost upwards to $100,000 a day," says Eddy Carmack, a climate research oceanographer and emeritus senior research scientist with the federal government.

"If there's only so much money to go around, the mobile labs give you a huge bang for buck covering a lot of area that icebreakers can't go, like into the shallow waters."

Scientists welcome the opportunity the mobile labs could create for their research.

Brent Else, an oceanographer and assistant professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Calgary, spent time this summer installing a weather station on a small, remote island in the Northwest Passage.

Overcoming the problems

He's hoping the station, set up with help from ARF, will be able to provide insight into how ice melts and forms, and how the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

"But the usual problems of power, communications and a place to live will limit what we can do," he says.

"If we could have [a mobile] lab there, we could add a lot of really cool instruments to the weather station, and we could put people there for extended periods of time to take care of the equipment and collect additional samples that machines can't do by themselves."

Beyond the potential scientific benefits of the mobile labs, there is potential for social benefits.

Carmack, whose first trip to the Arctic was in 1969, thinks the involvement of local residents in observing and helping with the research is vital.

"It builds trust … between those who live in the North and people who live in the south and visit the Arctic on occasion," he says. "It builds bridges between Western scientists and the people who base their knowledge on indigenous science, traditional knowledge."

He says the outcome from that can be tremendous.

"We've done a lot in the past to damage trust in the North [and] this is a way to move forward, I think."

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Researchers complete fieldwork for the University of Manitoba’s 'The Pangnirtung Inuit and the Greenland Shark project.' (C. Julián Idrobo/Pangnirtung, Nunavut Catalogue of Research)
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Shallow drilling in permafrost during the "Assessing permafrost conditions and landscape hazards in support of climate change adaptation in Pangnirtung, Nunavut" project, completed by the Geological Survey of Canada, Centre d’études Nordiques- Université Laval and Canada-Nunavut Geoscience Office. photo source (A.M. LeBlanc/Pangnirtung, Nunavut Catalogue of Research)
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This photo of beluga whale processing in Pangnirtung was taken in August of 1929. It was used in Rutgers University's 'American and Inuit whalers in Cumberland Sound project.' (L.D. Livingstone, Canada. Dept. of Indian and Northern Affairs/Pangnirtung, Nunavut Catalogue of R)
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A researcher stands with Pangnirtung youth during the University of Waterloo’s 'Exploring Inuit Artistic Voice about Arctic Environmental and Sea Ice Change' project. (Kaitlyn Rathwell/Pangnirtung, Nunavut Catalogue of Research)
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Field work near Pangnirtung in February 2005, for the University of Toronto’s 'Ice, Through Inuit Eyes: Characterizing the importance of sea ice processes, use, and change around three Nunavut communities' project. (Gita Ljubicic/Pangnirtung, Nunavut Catalogue of Research)
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Locals fish at Ikpit Bay as part of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans 'Development of Arctic char fisheries in Cumberland Sound' research project. (Simon Wiley)