SOURCE: University of Calgary

University of Calgary

July 15, 2015 10:00 ET

University researchers to play important role in research on arctic oil spills

Churchill Marine Observatory designed to break new ground in under-researched area

CALGARY, AB--(Marketwired - July 15, 2015) - Three University of Calgary researchers are collaborating with the University of Manitoba to study the impacts and consequences of potential arctic oil spills on or under the ice.

It's an area that has received very little scientific attention, but could prove increasingly important as climate change opens up the arctic to more oil exploration and shipping. This research will take place through the Churchill Marine Observatory in Manitoba, which was recently awarded $32 million in federal funding through the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI).

A first-of-its-kind facility in the circumpolar Arctic, the Churchill Marine Observatory will be located along the west coast of Hudson Bay adjacent to Canada's only arctic deep-water port. Research teams working at the marine observatory, and in their resident labs, will 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.

"The University of Calgary brings valuable expertise in bioremediation, sea ice remote sensing and in understanding the nature of CO2 exchange under extreme arctic conditions," says Ed McCauley, vice-president (research). "The broad scientific perspectives, as well as those from industry that will come together at the Churchill Marine Observatory will guide the decisions about how best to manage our energy resources while protecting sensitive ecosystems."

The geography of the arctic presents several unique and, to date, largely under-researched challenges involving extraction, oil spill detection and remediation.

In collaboration with lead researchers from the University of Manitoba, University of Calgary biology professor Casey Hubert, Geography Department Head John Yackel, and assistant geography professor Brent Else will dedicate their research efforts to safeguard arctic ecosystems.

Hubert, also a Campus Alberta Innovation Program Chair in Geomicrobiology, will lead the research team studying hydrocarbon biodegradation. His team will be looking for microbial communities capable of breaking down oil compounds by using the two sea ice tanks at the observatory to simulate real world conditions of an oil spill in a controlled arctic environment.

"Bioremediation in the cold arctic and in the presence of sea ice remains poorly understood," Hubert says. "By developing a better understanding of how arctic microbes will be mobilized in the event of a spill we can better model and map what will happen and what our response should be, should an accidental spill ever occur."

Yackel will lead the sea ice remote sensing research within the CMO's broader detection objective. "Churchill Marine Observatory will allow us to use satellite-microwave technologies to look at what snow-covered sea ice looks like without an oil spill on it, and see how signals change if there is a spill on the ice," he says.

Else will play an important role in researching the impact of oil spills on ecosystem function. "We don't know what role sea ice plays in carbon dioxide absorption," Else says. "The typical approach is that once you get an ice layer, it stops any CO2 exchange with the ocean, but there are a lot of questions in that area, and some of the challenges are similar to oil spill challenges."

NOTE: Casey Hubert and John Yackel are available for comment on Wednesday morning in person at 11 a.m. Please call to arrange to meet the researchers. Phone interviews can also be arranged by request.

About the University of Calgary
The University of Calgary is a leading Canadian university located in the nation's most enterprising city. The university has a clear strategic direction to become one of Canada's top five research universities by 2016, where research and innovative teaching go hand in hand, and where we fully engage the communities we both serve and lead. This strategy is called Eyes High, inspired by the university's Gaelic motto, which translates as 'I will lift up my eyes.'

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