Inside the Freezing-Cold Lab Where Scientists Practice Arctic Icebreaking

Temperatures dip down to -25°C (-13°F).

by Drew Brown
Dec 25 2016, 6:00pm

Image: Cody Westman

If someone had told my younger self that I could get a job smashing up tiny boats in the name of science, I probably wouldn't have gotten an arts degree.

It sounds like fun, but it's serious business. At the National Research Council's Ocean, Coastal, and River Engineering facility in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, scientists are busy tackling the technological problems of navigating the Northwest Passage, which runs through the Arctic Ocean and was considered impassable for centuries as it was locked up in ice. Now climate change is opening it up.

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Inside this lab, scientists are also trying to grapple with the ways that warming temperatures are reshaping the Arctic. The ice is receding, and how we'll either avert this change or adapt to it is being hashed out in a chilly pool of antifreeze on the eastern fringe of North America.

The ice tank. Image: Cody Westman

Despite spending seven years of my life at Memorial University in St. John's, I never gave much thought to the nondescript NRC building across the street from the campus bus stop. It wasn't until I was invited there for a tour that I discovered it housed one of the most advanced naval engineering research facilities in Canada. Or, for that matter, the world.

I was there to visit the NRC's ice tank, which—at 90 metres long, 12 metres wide, and 3 metres deep—is one of the largest indoor Arctic ice research facilities on the planet. When I was there, the room was a brisk -12°C (10°F), but I was told they regularly dipped it down as far as -25°C (-13°F). It could get much colder—the room is girded by huge pipes filled with ammonia to keep the place refrigerated—but that would screw up the equipment. Besides, -25° was more than cold enough to create thick, glacial ice.

The tank is colder at the far end, and marginally warmer near the rubber 'beach' where model ships and platforms are attached to the mobile control centre, which looks sort of like a big subway car that straddles the pool on a set of greased metal rails.

Checking out the experiments. Image: Cody Westman

Ice is grown by filling the tank with mist, which then crystallizes in a solution of water, antifreeze, and household detergent (actual saltwater ice would be too strong) until it reaches the desired thickness. It can be grown into a 76 x 12 metre sheet, which gives researchers a lot of ice to smash.

The day I was there, the team was testing how a stationary drillship (a ship used to drill exploratory oil and gas wells) would fare against a drifting patch of brash ice—the loose, chunky wreckage of a larger icy structure. A bright yellow model ship, manufactured out of foam and fibreglass in a miniature shipyard on site and outfitted with sensors, was fixed to a beam directly below the control room and slowly moved down the length of the pool.

Two cameras filmed it from above while another two filmed underwater, so that researchers would have a visual record to accompany the reams of sensor data they collected.

Nearly a fifth of all undiscovered petroleum reserves lie north of the Arctic Circle

On other occasions, to simulate how a moving ship or platform would deal with ice, they might tow the models more freely behind the control platform, or pilot them remotely like a radio-controlled toy. (A few of the staff told me that, yes, driving a remote-controlled icebreaker around to smash up a miniature icefield actually was a fun as it sounds.)

As you might imagine, the NRC ice tank is a pretty happening spot these days. One of the major impacts of climate change is that it's completely overturning everything we thought we knew about how Arctic ice works. Old data is obsolete, and a big part of the NRC's work now is to re-evaluate how new conditions might affect any naval structures headed north.

The Northwest Passage is opening, and shipping volume is going to increase.

Read More: Arctic Cruises for the Wealthy Could Fuel a Climate Change 'Feedback Loop'

Industry certainly has their eyes on the Arctic; we were, after all, testing how a drillship would survive a northern ice field. It's been estimated that nearly a fifth of all undiscovered petroleum reserves lie north of the Arctic Circle, and recovering it becomes more technically feasible every year the ice continues to melt. That's one hell of a feedback loop.

We're also in the birth pangs of a luxury Arctic tourism industry. The Crystal Serenity made her maiden voyage through the Northwest Passage this summer, and is scheduled to carry the ultra-wealthy through the ice again in 2017. Meanwhile, in Russia—another country fervently working to open regular Arctic shipping—at least one company is offering tourists the chance to cruise the North Pole in a nuclear icebreaker.

An increase in shipping lanes also means more Coast Guard presence, which sharpens the geopolitical stakes of asserting Arctic sovereignty. Canada is in the process of commissioning new Arctic icebreakers: the first, the $1.3 billion CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, is slated to come online in 2022. It was tested in the NRC ice tank earlier this year. If and when more icebreakers follow, they'll be passing through St. John's, too.

Image: Cody Westman

Admittedly, to me, some of this seemed mad. It's a contradiction: we're here in a lab trying to rewrite everything we know about the mechanics of a collapsing ice shelf at the same time as we try to perfect the tools we use to exploit it, in the interests of economic growth and national security. But none of the scientists I spoke with shared my pessimism.

For every model drillship they tow through the ice, they have a wave generator in the Ocean Engineering Basin modeling renewable energy. The atmosphere in the facility is relentlessly optimistic. Climate change is indeed a mortal threat to life on earth, but it's a threat that drives innovation. It's a monstrous problem that can, must, and will be solved by human ingenuity—there's nothing like an apocalyptic deadline to light a fire under your ass.

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