radar advances as ice retreats

''Two summers ago, we lost a glacier in the Atlin region - a whole mountain glacier was gone," says Stephen Mooney, director of Cold Climate Innovation at the Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College.

by Erling Friis-Baastad

‘‘Two summers ago, we lost a glacier in the Atlin region – a whole mountain glacier was gone,” says Stephen Mooney, director of Cold Climate Innovation at the Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College.

“It was a reality check,” he adds, pointing to the significance of losing a long-time feature and water source in the headwaters of the Yukon River.

“We found out last year that 16 per cent of the water in the Yukon River was from glaciers – so if glaciers start leaving us, it could have an effect on the Yukon River and hydro generation,” says Mooney.

Such an ice disappearance is no anomaly. Roughly “90 to 95 per cent of glaciers in the Northern Hemisphere are in retreat, and most of them have been since the late 1800s,” says Mooney’s colleague, University of Alberta glaciologist Jeffrey Kavanaugh. What we’re seeing, Kavanaugh explains, are changes to climatic regimes, which in turn affect water sources that power cities, make agriculture possible and provide transportation routes.

“But change is one of the few constants in the world,” says Kavanaugh. People may argue about the cause – or causes – of record-breaking heat waves, ice-field disappearances and freak mega-storms, but for now it would be a better use of our energy and skills to monitor those changes and research potential consequences, he says.

That’s exactly what Mooney, Kavanaugh and other scientists and engineers associated with the Cold Climate Innovation Centre and Northern Climate Exchange are doing, with the help of dual frequency ice-penetrating radar. It’s a Yukon research project funded by the college with money from the Yukon government’s Department of Economic Development, using Yukon-built technology that’s being tested in the territory itself.

Not only will the radar help us understand, and work to cope with, changes to our hydrological health, but the efficient new technology could benefit jurisdictions throughout a thirsty planet now waking up to climatic changes and threats to essential water sources. Whitehorse residents are not alone in their worries about the health of a river.

Ice-penetrating radar has been around, in more basic forms, since the 1960s, says Laurent Mingo, an engineer who specializes in data acquisition systems. Mingo’s Vancouver company, Blue System Integration Ltd., is working closely with Yukon’s Icefield Tools Corp. to perfect a portable ice-penetrating radar system whose transmitting component is made in the territory.

With the transmitter, radar waves are pulsed down into the glacier. These bounce back to reveal the glacier’s bed and depth. Eventually, the entire glacier’s volume and shape can be reconstructed. This is essential for modeling ice masses, their balance and their flow dynamics, says Mingo. But the process was originally slower and more expensive, as it could only use a single frequency at a time.

The dual-frequency radar equipment consists of a transmitter and receiver on a ski-mounted platform, dragging a 10-metre tail-like antenna. Because the system, pulled across the ice by researchers, works on two frequencies simultaneously, it can reveal internal glacier characteristics that would require several passes, or transects, to reveal if working at a single frequency.

With critical support from the Kluane Lake Research Station last spring, a team conducted a successful test of the system on a 10-square-kilometre valley glacier in the Donjek Range. Even severe weather challenges helped prove the new technology’s worth, says Mingo. Researchers encountered blizzards, which made moving around on the glacier difficult. “We had to wait for visibility and reasonable travelling conditions. We were hoping we’d have five to seven days of actual survey time,” he says. The team only got three, but working with two frequencies at once helped speed the work up to fit within the truncated time frame.

Asked if he “invented” the dual system, Mingo says, “It would be an overstatement to call it an invention. It is rather the result of a continuum of improvements made at many technological levels, such as electronics miniaturization, a computing platform of reduced size and power, and especially software.”

And the improvements are definitely ongoing. Mingo says he will be devoting much of this winter to expanding the radar’s frequency range and, consequently, its ability to probe different strata of ice.

With the right technology, researchers could employ frequencies “anywhere from the megahertz range to the low gigahertz range,” says Mingo. “We’ve been working with frequencies from 5 to 70 megahertz,” he adds, “but working at much higher frequencies will require new hardware.”

He likens this to transportation technology: “A pickup truck may be fine for basic hauling on back roads, but doing high-speed racing, for instance, would require a much different vehicle.”

Our society, which hasn’t been around all that long geologically or even biologically speaking, has been built around the rather stable climate “that we’ve been enjoying,” says Kavanaugh. And we have often taken for granted balanced systems that make our way of life comfortable, and even possible.

Consider the basics of how alpine glaciers work. Snow falls in higher elevations and the major part of that snow remains more than a year. “As more snow is piled on top, it is compacted as ice,” says Kavanaugh. That ice further compacts under its own weight and moves slowly downhill into a warmer elevation.

“In a stable climate a glacier will come to an equilibrium where the amount of water that melts each summer balances the water input each winter,” he says.

In an unstable climate – well, we’re in the process of discovering the effects. “The biggest and most direct impact and the one that is most likely to finally inspire people to take this seriously and adjust to it will be the economic impact,” says Kavanaugh.

The mandate of the Cold Climate Innovation Centre “is to stimulate economic development through cold climate innovation technology,” says project manager Mooney. In helping develop a device that allows people to monitor loss of ice and hydro health (the tipping of a balance in an ever-more power-hungry world) CCI is surely living up to its promise.

This column is co-ordinated by the Yukon Research Centre (YRC) at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and YRC. The articles are archived at http://yukoncollege.yk.ca/research/publications/newslatters_articles

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Willow Brewster, a paramedic helping in the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre, holds a swab used for the COVID-19 test moments before conducting a test with it on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
An inside look at the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre

As the active COVID-19 case count grew last week, so too did… Continue reading

Conservation officers search for a black bear in the Riverdale area in Whitehorse on Sept. 17. The Department of Environment intends to purchase 20 semi-automatic AR-10 rifles, despite the inclusion of the weapons in a recently released ban introduced by the federal government, for peace officers, such as conservation officers. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Environment Minister defends purchase of AR-10 rifles for conservation officers

The federal list of banned firearms includes an exception for peace officers

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The K-shaped economic recovery and what Yukoners can do about it

It looks like COVID-19 will play the role of Grinch this holiday… Continue reading

Jodie Gibson has been named the 2020 Prospector of the Year by the Yukon Prospectors Association. (Submitted)
Jodie Gibson named 2020 Prospector of the Year

Annual award handed out by the Yukon Prospector’s Association

A number 55 is lit in honour of Travis Adams, who died earlier this year, at the Winter Wonderland Walk at Meadow Lakes Golf Club in Whitehorse on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
A new take on holiday traditions

Winter Wonderland Walk, virtual Stories with Santa all part of 2020 festive events in Whitehorse

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

Colin McDowell, the director of land management for the Yukon government, pulls lottery tickets at random during a Whistle Bend property lottery in Whitehorse on Sept. 9, 2019. A large amount of lots are becoming available via lottery in Whistle Bend as the neighbourhood enters phase five of development. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Lottery for more than 250 new Whistle Bend lots planned for January 2021

Eight commercial lots are being tendered in additional to residential plots

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21. The Canada Border Services Agency announced Nov. 26 that they have laid charges against six people, including one Government of Yukon employee, connected to immigration fraud that involved forged Yukon government documents. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Charges laid in immigration fraud scheme, warrant out for former Yukon government employee

Permanent residency applications were submitted with fake Yukon government documents

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Karen Wenkebach has been appointed as a judge for the Yukon Supreme Court. (Yukon News file)
New justice appointed

Karen Wenckebach has been appointed as a judge for the Supreme Court… Continue reading

Catherine Constable, the city’s manager of legislative services, speaks at a council and senior management (CASM) meeting about CASM policy in Whitehorse on June 13, 2019. Constable highlighted research showing many municipalities require a lengthy notice period before a delegate can be added to the agenda of a council meeting. Under the current Whitehorse procedures bylaw, residents wanting to register as delegates are asked to do so by 11 a.m. on the Friday ahead of the council meeting. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Changes continue to be contemplated for procedures bylaw

Registration deadline may be altered for delegates

Cody Pederson of the CA Storm walks around LJ’s Sabres player Clay Plume during the ‘A’ division final of the 2019 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament. The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28 in Whitehorse next year, was officially cancelled on Nov. 24 in a press release from organizers. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament cancelled

The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28… Continue reading

Lev Dolgachov/123rf
The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner stressed the need to safeguard personal information while shopping this holiday season in a press release on Nov. 24.
Information and Privacy Commissioner issues reminder about shopping

The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Diane McLeod-McKay stressed the need to… Continue reading

Most Read