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Engineering on Ice

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Anne Barker explores how to improve the stability and safety of offshore structures in icy waters.

Anne Barker

Anne Barker

Job: Engineer – NRC Canadian Hydraulics Centre in Ottawa, Ontario
Research: Engineering in cold regions
Languages: English, French

More about Anne...

Current Projects
Getting There
The Best Part of My Job
Life in a Research Lab
Future plans
After Hours
If I Had a Million Dollars


I'm a member of the Cold Regions Technologies Group at the NRC Canadian Hydraulics Centre. We work on ice-related engineering problems for government and private sector clients, who fund our services.

"As an engineer, I like the fact you get to take interesting research and scientific knowledge and apply it for the benefit of companies and people in general."

Current Projects

In one project, we're looking at how to deal with evacuation from offshore structures – such as Arctic oil and gas production platforms – throughout the year, not just in the open water season. We need to prepare evacuation strategies for the times when ice completely surrounds a structure or when moving ice interacts with the structure. How can we get people off a platform in different conditions?

In another project, we're looking at how to encourage the formation of ice rubble around offshore structures. This is good for their stability because it helps absorb the force exerted by moving ice, such as packed ice, which could damage the structures. We're trying to figure out if we can engineer ice rubble so it develops and stays in place for a long period of time. If so, how would you do it? Would you want rubble to form just on one side of a structure, so you can land an icebreaker on the other side to bring in supplies and allow evacuation, or would you want rubble to completely surround a structure?

Getting There: Road to NRC

I've worked at NRC since 1998. My dad was an engineer and my mom, a teacher, so I was leaning toward those careers as a child. In high school, some family friends were scientists, which pulled me towards engineering. I was initially interested in chemical engineering, but I was not particularly skillful in my first year chemistry courses. However, I did enjoy water-related courses, so I entered civil engineering.

After earning a Master's in Civil Engineering from Queen's University, specializing in coastal engineering, a professor told me there was a position available here. I was familiar with NRC through university courses – we had toured the Canadian Hydraulics Centre. NRC is one of the few places in Canada where you can do coastal engineering work in a laboratory setting.

What I Like Best About My Job

I like the people I work with and the variety. My supervisor is great about ensuring we have new experiences and work on different types of projects. As an engineer, I like the fact you get to take interesting research and scientific knowledge and apply it for the benefit of companies and people in general.

Life in a Research Lab

My work day is pretty regimented. Typically, I get to NRC by 7:30 or 8:00 and leave by 4:15 to pick up my son from daycare. I start the day by going through e-mail to see if any new work has arrived, or new proposals, or requests for information. Most days, I work at a computer. That could mean running numerical models, analyzing data or writing reports, conference papers, journal articles, or new research proposals. I also attend several meetings and go to a conference at least once a year.

Anne Barker

For the past two years, I have traveled to the Arctic for field work, which. I love. Last year, we went at the end of March and this year, at the end of April. We wanted to find out how the ice rubble fields change over this period. We work out of Inuvik and then charter a helicopter to fly out to the rubble fields. We survey them to measure their height, and take photographs and GPS (global positioning system) readings of various locations.

Over the past year, we've been collecting satellite images of the ice rubble fields. Now, we're checking these images to see if we can pinpoint those fields, compare the heights of the fields, and estimate how much ice sits on the seabed, because that is one factor that determines whether the ice will break up and float away or stay put for a long time. If we can do this work using satellite images, it will be much easier than sending people onto the ice to take those measurements.  

Back at NRC, we sometimes use our ice tank, which is one of the only ones in Canada (there is a larger one at an NRC research facility in St. John's). We once used the tank for a three-year study on how ice would affect offshore wind turbines in Denmark. Basically, you fill the basin with water, cool the chamber to -15°C or so, put in a model of what you're studying, push the ice up against it and record what happens.

Future plans

I would like to do more research on renewable energy. If Canada starts putting wind turbines in the Great Lakes, there will be ice issues. In terms of personal development, I would like to further my knowledge of ice-related engineering problems.

Anne After Hours

I like to knit – it's a portable hobby so I can take it with me wherever I go.

Books: A few years ago, I started a book club with friends. I like Nick Hornby's work and Agatha Christie-type mysteries. I've also enjoyed the Harry Potter series.

Holidays: I once took five weeks leave to visit New Zealand and the Cook Islands. These days, if I attend a conference somewhere exotic, I often try to take an extra week off. I also spend time at our family cottage in the summer.

Exercise: Before my son was born, I used to play a lot of field hockey and would often rollerblade home from a bus stop or skate home along the Rideau Canal. Now, I try to walk or rollerblade over the lunch hour.

Music: I enjoy listening to classical music on CBC radio. On my iPod, I listen to artists such as Feist, Be Good Tanyas, or Josh Rouse. I also like catchy Madonna tunes.

Television: I tape or watch shows on DVD such as Dr. Who or Battlestar Galactica.

Movies: I like action movies. I'm waiting to see Casino Royale on DVD.

If I Had a Million Dollars

If I was awarded $1 million in research funding, I would research offshore wind turbines. I would also do more Arctic field work, which is very expensive. To rent the helicopter, it can cost $15,000 per day.

If I won a $1 million lottery, I would invest most of it, but I would want to keep working because I like my job. I would also travel more to recharge my batteries.