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A place to study Arctic oil spills

U of M leading $28-M project proposed for Churchill

Conceptual drawing for the proposed Churchill Marine Observatory.


Conceptual drawing for the proposed Churchill Marine Observatory.

The University of Manitoba is proposing a unique research centre at Churchill that would study the potentially profound environmental effects of industrializing the Arctic.

The $28-million Churchill Marine Observatory would develop ways of detecting oil in ice-covered waters, study its impact on the ecosystem and develop technologies for cleaning up Arctic waters in case of a spill.

Conceptual drawing for the proposed Churchill Marine Observatory.

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Conceptual drawing for the proposed Churchill Marine Observatory. (JULIANA KUSYK)

David Barber: 'really big undertaking'

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David Barber: 'really big undertaking' (KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

The U of M is leading the project, which -- if accepted by a key national funding agency -- would see 20 to 30 scientists from Canada and abroad in Churchill at any one time and about 100 during the course of a year.

An environmental-observatory network in which high-tech equipment will monitor the sea ice and waters in shipping lanes leading into and out of the Port of Churchill.

There will be atmospheric monitoring done to provide data on the effects of extreme weather events in the area.

A facility just north of the port in which experiments can be carried out on Arctic ice and seawater.

A logistics base with space for removable dock storage.

"We should have done this 20 years ago, but we didn't. So we're trying to do it now... " said David Barber, a U of M professor and Canada Research Chair in Arctic systems science.

With the melting of the Arctic sea ice, increased shipping and industrial development in the North are likely.

"This centre would be basically the first of its kind in the Arctic. It would be specifically focused around aspects of oil spills and sea ice," Barber said in an interview Monday. "It's my opinion that such work is essential prior to developing large-scale hydrocarbon resources in the Arctic or shipping large amounts of hydrocarbon resources across the Arctic."

Collaborating with the U of M are the University of Calgary and the University of Victoria. The three institutions are applying this year for $11.2 million in funding from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI). If they're successful in obtaining the money, the Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia governments have already committed collectively to match it. The remaining funds -- about 20 per cent of the project's cost -- would be raised from corporations and other private and public partners.

The CFI funding is critical to the project getting off the ground, but it's not a sure thing. Barber said the U of M and its partners will be competing with submissions from across Canada in the natural and medical sciences.

"This is a really big undertaking for the University of Manitoba. It's big for the country, but it's also extremely positive for all the Arctic nations, because they all grapple with the same problems," he said.

How oil and liquified natural gas and other contaminants may affect Arctic ecosystems or be dispersed in Arctic waters in case of spills are critical questions, said Barber, a sea-ice specialist with 30 years' experience.

What would happen, for instance, if the region suffered a disaster on the scale of the 2010 BP Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? "We're totally unprepared for such an eventuality," he said.

A key component of the research would be to study the effects of oil and other contaminants on the Arctic ecosystem.

The project's proponents plan to construct a facility with two large tanks or ponds in which seawater can be tested and sea ice produced for scientific research. Contaminants such as oil would be introduced into one of the tanks while the other would serve as a control. (Contaminants would be filtered, processed and removed following the experiments so they did not enter nearby waters.)

Barber said the U of M has been "extremely pleased" with the results of research involving the production of artificial sea ice (using groundwater and adding salts) at its Fort Garry campus. But the proposed Churchill project would allow for experiments on a real ecosystem.

There are a half-dozen facilities in the world that can grow sea ice in controlled laboratory conditions, but none of them uses Arctic seawater. The Churchill Marine Observatory would be the first to do that, Barber said.

A potential partner in the project is the company Omnitrax, which owns the Port of Churchill, used primarily for exporting grain.

Omnitrax is also exploring the feasibility of shipping oil through the port, which has caused concern among environmental groups and is opposed by the Manitoba government.

Merv Tweed, president of Omnitrax Canada, said the University of Manitoba has asked the company to donate land for the project's facilities, but the company is so far non-committal.

Tweed said while he is "very supportive" of the U of M-led initiative, Omnitrax remains in the dark about provincial government plans to regulate the port through the creation of a Churchill port authority.

"There's been no consultation, no discussion with us (by government on the authority)," Tweed said. "Until we get that clarity, I don't think we can really commit to doing, unfortunately, anything for anybody."

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