Researchers to study if oil-eating 'bugs' could clean up Arctic oil spills

A group of University of Manitoba researchers have received a multimillion-dollar grant to study how best to clean up in the event of oil spills in the Arctic.

Feds, province commit $4M to U of M Arctic oil spill research

University of Manitoba researchers have received $4 million to study oil spill mitigation measures in the Arctic. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

A group of University of Manitoba researchers have received a multimillion-dollar grant to study how best to clean up in the event of an oil spill in the Arctic. 

The province and the federal government chipped in a total of $4 million in funding for GENICE Monday, a project that will use gene-analyzing tools to study how polar marine environments might be impacted by and recover from oil spills at the microbial level.

Terry Duguid is the member of Parliament for the Winnipeg South constituency. (CBC)
​Terry Duguid, member of Parliament for Winnipeg South, lauded the research, which he described as including the study of "little bugs that are going to eat the oil" in the event of a spill.

"We believe that the science of today is the economy of tomorrow," Duguid said. "The environment and economy go together and this is very, very important research for the future of our planet."

Comes at important time

Casey Hubert and Gary Stern, professors in the U of M's Centre for Earth Observation Science, will head the research team.

The announcement comes a few weeks after the U.S. and Canadian governments announced an indefinite moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic.

Stern said the joint funding agreement comes at an important time.

"We're losing a lot of the ice in the Arctic. We may even be ice-free in the summertime," Stern said.

The amount of Arctic ice has been decreasing for years, but the type of ice is also changing. Due to the historically cool environment of the far north, the ice is typically much thicker and builds up over the course of years, as opposed to the seasonal melting that happens further south.

Frost flowers grow atop the salt-water at the Sea-ice Environmental Research Facility pool at the University of Manitoba. Researchers study interactions between sea ice and the environment in concrete pools on campus in Winnipeg. (Fei Wang)

With a warming climate, much of that thick, multi-year ice is disappearing and providing an opening for transport ships to freely move through once ice-locked Arctic passageways.

Although there is currently a ban on resource extraction and exploration in place in the Arctic, Stern says commercial shipping and cruise traffic only stands to increase, and with it the risk of oil spills.

"We want to make sure that when they do start with the exploration and oil drilling, which they will, we want to make sure we are prepared and have the policies in place that we can actually deal with oil spills," Stern said.

"We really need to actually understand how we can clean up an oil spill should it happen in that type of an environment, and to do that we need to [do] the science."

Gary Stern is a professor in the University of Manitoba's Centre for Earth Observation Science. (CBC)

Stern and his colleagues plan to run genomic experiments that will allow scientists to determine how naturally occurring microbes present in sea water and ice could potentially break down oil in the Arctic.

One way of cleaning up spills right now includes the use of "dispersants," a mix of chemicals that turn sheets of oil on surface waters into tiny droplets after a spill. But apart from containing toxins of their own, dispersants are currently illegal to use in Canadian waters. It also isn't yet clear whether they would work the same in the Arctic as they do in warmer environments, which is something Stern hopes to find out.

"So, how do we develop that technology, how do we develop the policy that we need to make sure that if there is an oil spill that we can clean it up?" he said.

The research is just one part of the broader climate change, sea ice and Arctic research that will be conducted at the Churchill Marine Observatory. The Manitoba government pledged $9 million to the observatory in August.

The observatory is expected to create jobs and make Churchill a "major science capital in the Arctic for the world," Duguid said.

With files from the Canadian Press