Nova Scotia

How thinking inside the box solved shortage of ship time for ocean researchers

Ocean scientists based at Dalhousie University in Halifax have solved a shortage of ship time for at-sea research by thinking inside the box — a modular metal box, that is.

Recent expedition used modular containers to act as labs at sea

Ocean research was carried out on the deck of the Irving-owned offshore supply ship Atlantic Condor. (Marine Environmental Observation, Prediction and Response network (MEOPAR))

Ocean scientists based at Dalhousie University in Halifax have solved a shortage of ship time for at-sea research by thinking inside the box — a modular metal box that resembles a shipping container.

"This is a chemistry lab. It contains all equipment you can find in your conventional lab back at Dalhousie," research scientist Dasha Atamanchuk said of the workspace tucked inside a container on the working deck of the Atlantic Condor.

Atamanchuk and the Irving-owned supply ship are back in Nova Scotia after a mission earlier this month off the Scotian Shelf.

Research scientist Dasha Atamanchuk says the expedition shows ocean research can be carried out using modular containers. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

The trip was to see if the vessel — which was carrying a half-dozen modular labs — could be transformed into a research ship.

"We wanted to test whether we can deploy our equipment from this vessel because it's never been done before," said Atamanchuk, who studies the transfer of carbon dioxide into the deep ocean.

"Having the research infrastructure that was provided to us actually showed us that yes, we can do it, we can do it successfully.

"It opens a whole new range of opportunities for us. We are always eager to go to sea. We have the ideas, we have the technology, we have the research programs. What was limited is access to the research vessel and being able to get out and actually do this work."

This marked the inaugural mission in a two-year program led by the Dalhousie-based Marine Environmental Observation, Prediction and Response network (MEOPAR).

Scientific director Doug Wallace is looking for ways to get Canadian scientists more frequently out to sea, rather than waiting for a place on an international research ship or on one of Canada's aging and increasingly unreliable coast guard vessels.

"For issues like climate change, the protection of marine biodiversity, fishing resources, we just have to be out there to understand what's going on, and that means we have to collect evidence that's relevant to Canadian priorities," said Wallace.

A custom crane is used to deploy sensitive instruments. (Marine Environmental Observation, Prediction and Response network)

He has lost confidence in Canada's primary East Coast offshore oceanographic science vessel, CCGS Hudson. The 58-year-old vessel spent three of the last five years in refit. A generator failure earlier this year forced it to curtail one mission, cancel another and raised concerns from onboard scientists about the ship's condition.

"My personal feeling is that she's no longer unfortunately fit for purpose, and we need to find new ways to get out to sea as soon as possible," said Wallace.

His solution is the Modular Ocean Research Infrastructure program.

Containerized labs are not an idea that's unique to MEOPAR, but the ability to deploy this modular infrastructure on a variety of non-specialized vessels in a variety of combinations, depending on the trip, is what makes the MORI concept unique.

Completion of the first mission was marked Thursday by an event at the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship in Dartmouth, N.S.

How Irving is contributing

Irving Shipbuilding is the funder. It put up $2 million to outfit the containers as part of the company's industrial and technical benefits commitment under the national shipbuilding program.

MEOPAR is putting up $1 million, mostly to pay for ship time on Irving-owned vessels like the Atlantic Condor, operated by subsidiary Atlantic Towing.

The offshore supply boat was built in Halifax to service the former Encana offshore natural gas project near Sable Island.

Doug Wallace, the scientific director of the Marine Environmental Observation, Prediction and Response network, says the region's aging science vessel, CCGS Hudson, is no longer 'fit for purpose.' (Brian MacKay/CBC)

"It helps us get into a new market and turn over a few new stones," said Tim Brownlow of Atlantic Towing.

He declined to provide the day rate the researchers are being charged.

Chester's Hawboldt Industries made the custom crane that deploys sensitive instruments.

'The entire scientific community is delighted,' says scientist

Atamanchuk is scheduled to return to the Labrador Sea on board an Irving supply boat in May.

It is one of four or five cruises planned for 2022 under the program.

"I'm not afraid to speak on behalf of my colleagues who have the same opinion and the same problem. The entire scientific community is delighted with the prospect of getting to get out at sea and do research," she said.

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Paul Withers

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Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.

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