Back for a fifth year of operations, the Sea-ice Environmental Research Facility (SERF) at the University of Manitoba is conducting its latest batch of experiments to determine environmental impact on the salt water ice of the Arctic.
While many Manitobans are finding things to do and study indoors, Dr. Fei Wang, his fellow professors and their students brave the elements to examine the intricacies of sea ice, and to use the information gathered to help calibrate their instruments for use in the field. The facility is one of only two of its kind in North America.
“My colleague, Dr. David Barber who is the Canadian research chair in arctic climate change, has been chasing this idea for a while, primarily driven by his earlier experience working in New Hampshire at the U.S. facility,” said Dr. Wang. “In 2008 we put together to a proposal to an agency called the Canada Foundation for Innovation to build this sea-ice environmental facility. We were lucky to get the funding, started construction and the whole facility became operational in 2012, with this year marking our fifth anniversary.”
The facility varies each year depending on Mother Nature, the only part the SERF team can’t control at the outdoor facility. A set of questions to be addressed is established in September each year, as members of the Artic Science Partnership community are allowed to use the facility. Variable such as salinity, water chemistry and how much of the roof they use are all decided on before the first study takes place.
“In theory we can run from December to March,” said Dr. Wang. “But in reality we can only really run in January and February. In March, while it’s still cold, the intensity of the midday sun is enough to deform the ice. We have two months of time, with two three-week experiments. We take one week to prepare the facility then run the experiment for three weeks. In between the two, we melt the ice and start over.”
“We have two types of study. There’s the geophysical study, where we study the remote sensing techniques and study the surfaces features of the ice and study the brine dynamics of the ice, or ice thickness. We test these techniques so that we can remotely determine those parameters for use in the field, for northern communities or for military operations.”
“Then we have the geochemical side of the study, where we study the chemical parameters of the sea-ice. That could be greenhouse gases, like CO2 and methane. There can be contaminants, such as mercury. We also study the fundamental parameters, including the pH, measuring the acidity of the sea ice.”
“Frost flowers are such a unique kind of phenomenon. They look very interesting just physically, but we also study their causes and effect. For instance, we study them geophysically to determine their effect on remote sensing. From a contaminants and chemistry side of things, frost flowers are extremely saline, with up to ten times the salinity of sea water. The concentration also concentrates contaminants, which can result in a high concentration of mercury or other contaminants. It’s very difficult to do field studies, because they only form at certain times and only last for a few days. Getting to them in the Arctic can be very difficult, but forming them at SERF allows for close study, from the very beginning of growth to the end of its decay.”
“One of the indicative comments I’ve heard from locals up there was that in the past, when they would go on hunting or fishing trips they wouldn’t have to bring any drinking water,” said Dr. Wang. “All they would have to do if they got thirsty was crush a piece of ice and you can drink it. But you cannot do this anymore. The ice that you crush now tastes just like sea water. And that tells you that the multi-year ice is disappearing, and that the ice is melting in the summer and growing again in the winter. So these talks tell us that the change is happening, and it’s happening very fast.”