Calgary

Arctic oil spills to be studied at Churchill research facility

With increased shipping activity and plenty of potential drilling, researchers are hoping to better understand the effects of an oil spill in arctic sea ice and how to prevent it thanks to a multi-government, multi-university research centre in Churchill, Man.

Scientists will focus on detection, mitigation and remediation in changing northern waters

Researchers will examine what happens when oil spills in the Canadian arctic as melting makes way for increased shipping. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

With increased shipping activity and plenty of potential drilling, researchers are hoping to better understand the effects of an oil spill in arctic sea ice and how to prevent it thanks to a multi-government, multi-university research centre in Churchill, Man.

"It allows us to sort of understand what it looks like for an oil spill to be amidst ice-covered seas," said John Yackel, the head of the department of geography at the University of Calgary and the lead researcher at the Churchill Marine Observatory who will focus on detection.

"It's one thing to detect and map sea ice in a normal situation, but if we were to have a spill, an oil spill, in that ice, it may be a little bit harder to detect, so we're going to get ahead of this potential problem."

The facility is being funded through the Canada Foundation for Innovation — an independent non-governmental organization established by the federal government in 1997 — as well as the governments of Alberta, Manitoba and Canada.

Researchers will pull water from Hudson's Bay, grow sea ice and then expose it to oil spills in order to better understand how it reacts in the arctic environment.

"Does it come to the surface? Does it hide underneath? What is the extent? What is the depth of that oil spill?" said Yackel. 

"In an ice-covered environment, it will be much different and so that's what this facility will allow us to do."

The research centre is expected to be up and running by 2017.

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