Early Detection of Oil Spills in Arctic Waters

Leah Hicks, Master’s Student, University of Manitoba, 2021 CSA Group Graduate Scholarship Recipient

In 2019, CSA Group launched its Graduate Scholarship Program to support students enrolled in a Master’s program whose research is related to standards. We want to introduce the recipients of the 2021 scholarship and tell you how their research can contribute to the advancement of standards.

Profile picture of leah Hicks, recipient of 2021 CSA Group Graduate Scholarship.Scientific data shows that climate change is affecting Canada’s North at a much faster rate than the rest of the country. The resulting loss of thick, multi-year sea ice in the Arctic Ocean opens the region to more shipping traffic. And with the growing number of ships, the probability of oil or diesel spills is increasing. Early detection of such spills will be crucial in protecting the already vulnerable environment.

Remote sensors have been successfully used for detecting and monitoring marine oil spills for years, but their application in northern conditions has not been thoroughly examined. That inspired the research project of Leah Hicks, Master’s student in the Environment and Geography Program at the University of Manitoba. As she explained, detecting oil and diesel spills under sea ice has its unique challenges. Different types of fuels move through and interact with the aquatic system differently. Also, in some areas, thick ice might be covered by snow, while other areas would have a lot of broken ice. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution – different techniques may be effective under different conditions.

Leah’s research is focused on exploring how microwave radar sensors could be used in Arctic marine environments. She is using an L-band scatterometer, a device that emits waves at a low microwave frequency and measures their reflection. Her goal is to compare the backscatter of sea ice and how it changes when there is oil or diesel fuel underneath the ice. That will help detect the oil spill quicker, before it gets to the surface, and allow for implementing cleanup measures earlier.

As a scientist, it’s really cool to see how my project can be more meaningful and actually influence policy. It does not have to end with publishing a paper but continue with people learning about what I’m doing and how it can be used. So that’s something that’s really important to me.

– Leah Hicks, Master’s Student, University of Manitoba

To do the field part of the research, Leah plans to use the Churchill Marine Observatory, the University of Manitoba’s unique multi-disciplinary Arctic research facility. The Ocean-Sea Ice Mesocosm Facility at the Observatory has two pools equipped with sophisticated environmental monitoring equipment. It will allow Leah to perform experiments with different scenarios and conditions.

Further, Leah wants to test scatterometers with higher frequencies that are commonly mounted on satellites and used in the Arctic. She hopes her work will contribute to improving methods for remote detection of oil and diesel fuel underneath the Arctic sea ice using sensor technology and contribute to developing CSA Group’s readiness and response standards.

Starting her work, Leah did not realize what influence research can have on standards. Now she better understands how impactful it can be and how it can be reflected in new policies, regulations, and guidelines.

I’m glad that Leah is doing this project. The fact that she is working with standards and hoping to inform their development helps let more people in our research groups know about what standards are and how they’re used.

– Dr. Dustin Isleifson, Associate Professor, University of Manitoba

Leah’s thesis supervisor, Dr. Dustin Isleifson, Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Centre for Earth Observation Science (CEOS) at the University of Manitoba, echoes the sentiment. He believes that considering future standardization is an extremely effective way to connect Leah’s research with practical applications. As he put it, “adding different, diverse angles can really improve the overall outreach, amplify the impact of the research project, and reach industry stakeholders.” He hopes other people will start thinking of how their work can contribute to the development of standards on oil spill detection approaches.

Learn more about CSA Group’s Graduate Scholarship Program.


June 27, 2022