Visionary Manitoba Arctic researcher David Barber dies, leaving 'massive footprint' in field

Family and friends are mourning the loss of the visionary Arctic researcher and University of Manitoba professor David Barber.

Barber died on Friday after suffering cardiac arrest

Dr. David Barber was one of Canada’s most influential and accomplished Arctic researchers. He died on Friday, April 15 (Submitted by David Barber)

Family and friends are mourning the loss of the visionary Arctic researcher and University of Manitoba professor David Barber.

Barber, who was a distinguished professor, the founding director of the Centre for Earth Observation Science and  associate dean of research in the faculty of environment, earth and resource, passed away on Friday after suffering complications from cardiac arrest.

Barber, 61, is survived by his wife Lucette, three children and two grandchildren.

He loomed as large in his family as he did in academia, says his eldest son, Jeremy Barber.

"I think the outward facing piece that people may know of him as sort of being the Arctic guy was just a piece of the entire man that he was, but it was very symbolic of what he was in the rest of his life," Jeremy said in an interview with CBC News.

"He was a very fiercely passionate man and a very loyal father, husband and family member."

David Barber was a professor and researcher at the University of Manitoba. He led a team annually to study sea ice conditions in the Canadian Arctic Ocean. (Submitted by the University of Manitoba)

David, who was a Canada Research Chair in Arctic system science and climate change, was very intentional about including his family in his work, Jeremy said.

"In 1999, I went up to a remote camp with him a two-hour helicopter ride north of Resolute Bay and just lived that life with him. And he did that for my entire life," he said.

"I don't know how he managed to get a nine-year-old kid onto an ice cap, but it was something that I'm very grateful for, something that very much positioned who myself and my siblings are as people."

U of M climatologist Tim Papakyriakou also spent a lot of time with Barber in the High Arctic — sometimes even in tents on the sea ice.

"He was the guy that you'd want to be with if things went sideways. He was a very, very clever individual, very intuitive, a very big man, too…. So when you get your snowmobile stuck or something else happens, yeah, you want to have Dave beside you," Papakyriakou said.

Papakyriakou says Barber left a "massive footprint" on Arctic research, locally, nationally and internationally.

David Barber and his team are pictured in a 2015 file photo where they placed GPS tracking devices, sonar systems, and meteorological stations on top of floating ice formations. (Submitted by David Barber)

Barber was instrumental in the development of many large international multidisciplinary networks, and helped secure major Arctic research infrastructure.

"He came back to the University of Manitoba because he wanted to make a contribution here. He was a super proud Manitoban, super proud Canadians and loved the Arctic. He worked tirelessly to put Canada back on the map in Arctic research, and he did do that," he said.

Barber was awarded the Order or Canada in 2016, being recognized as "one of our nation's most influential Arctic researchers."

Colleague and friend Feiyue Wang, a professor and Canada Research Chair in Arctic environmental chemistry at the U of M, said Barber's loss as a visionary leader in the field will be felt across the world.

"The impact most have felt is his leadership, his vision that we have to address complex climate change, Arctic change issue with … not just academia, but that with industry, with communities, with governments working together to prepare the north and the Arctic for what's going to happen," Wang said.

David Barber (left) is pictured with his team on an Arctic expedition. The visionary researcher died on Friday at the age of 61. (Submitted by Julien Barber)

He's especially disappointed Barber won't be there to see the unveiling of the Churchill Marine Observatory in the port of Churchill, Man., something that he sees as a game changer.

"It's the first major scientific infrastructure in the Arctic for the Arctic … so that's one of my biggest regrets that David is not going to see the grand opening and all the research that will happen at the facility," Wang said. 

The U of M is hosting a celebration of life event to honour Barber in the engineering atrium on April 23 from 1-3 p.m.

With files from Caitlyn Gowriluk and Leif Larsen