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Hot Stuff: From Arctic Ice to Desert Heat

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Working in difficult and harsh environmental conditions has always posed a problem for the human race. But with the help of science, working in some of the most difficult climates on earth, from arctic glaciers to the deserts of the Middle East, has just become easier.

Under the arctic ice

Icebergs abound in the waters near the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland.
Icebergs abound in the waters near the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland.

In recent years, the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland has become an alarming indicator of global warming. Already the world's fastest moving glacier, Jakobshavn has doubled its speed over the past decade. No one knows for sure why Jakobshavn is speeding up.

Why do glaciers move?

There are two theories in the scientific community: Atmospheric scientists think it is because the atmosphere is warmer. Oceanographers think it is because the oceans have warmed, and warm water is melting the glacier from below.

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The answer is probably a combination of atmospheric and oceanographic factors. But while satellite photos provide a good picture of the portion of the glacier that sits above the water, the bottom remains a mystery.

This mystery could soon be solved however, by an innovative new tool created at NRC: an underwater vehicle that can travel beneath the ice in search of clues to the glacier's acceleration.

To test this new vehicle, international team of scientists headed to Greenland to study one piece of the puzzle - whether water from a warming ocean is travelling 40 kilometres up the Ilulissat Fjord to flow underneath the glacier.

The expedition traveled by boat to the mouth of the fjord where melting icebergs enter the ocean. Navigating among icebergs up to 40 storeys high, they lowered instruments to the ocean floor and took measurements of water flow, temperature and salinity outside the entrance to the fjord.

What did they find?

"Basically, the water out there is 'warm', by which I mean about two degrees Celsius," says Dr. Bachmayer, one of the researchers on the mission. "The key question now is: does that warm water travel over the mouth of the fjord and up underneath the glacier, where it could melt it from below?"

The team used this opportunity to test a mini submarine called a "Slocum" underwater glider, which includes sensors for oxygen, temperature, conductivity and depth. The biggest challenges for the glider were negotiating the complex currents around the icebergs, and controlling the vehicle while it was under the ice. As a result, researchers are looking into new vehicle concepts that take the ocean environment into account in a better way.

The Slocum underwater glider being tested in the waters at the mouth of the Ilulissat Fjord in Greenland.
The Slocum underwater glider being tested in the waters at the mouth of the Ilulissat Fjord in Greenland.

Overall, this exciting research could translate into important contribution in the areas of environmental science, helping us understand global warming and its effects on our Earth's oceans.

Soldiers in the hot seat

Far from the frigid waters of the Arctic, members of Canada's Armed Forces are braving the intense heat of the Afghan desert. Temperatures in this hostile environment can regularly exceed 40 degrees Celsius in summertime, causing serious risk to soldiers, especially the crews working inside the confined space of our fleet of Leopard tanks.

The heavily armed Leopards were sent to Afghanistan because they offer the best protection against roadside bombs and mines. But the military was concerned that the internal temperature of the tanks would rise above 50ºC in the summer heat.

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The armed forces had a possible solution - cooling vests - but the vests had yet to be proven in the harsh conditions of Afghanistan. So, National Defence approached NRC to create a realistic testing ground for the vests, using a specialized environmental chamber that produces temperatures ranging from -51ºC to +55ºC.

To assist with the testing, National Defence supplied an actual Leopard tank, that NRC engineers then outfitted with additional armour that was being used to reinforce tanks in Afghanistan.

To simulate the Afghan sun, 300 halogen bulbs - at 500 watts each - were installed in the environmental chamber. They stripped the bulbs of their protective glass to increase the UV radiation. "We created high noon in Kandahar," says NRC's Don LeBlanc, manager of the climatic engineering chamber. Researchers even had to slather on SPF 60 sunscreen to prepare for the "desert conditions" of the climatic chamber.

A Leopard tank bakes in a simulation of the midday Afghan sun.
A Leopard tank bakes in a simulation of the midday Afghan sun.

In preparation for the test, the team also installed a solar shield on the tank - a large sheet of insulating material that covers the tank and could help to reduce its skin temperature. The tank's exterior can reach a blistering 80ºC in the sun.

Finally, the chamber was ready. A real Leopard tank crew then performed simulated manoeuvres inside the tank wearing first their usual gear, then their gear with the addition of the cooling vests. The vests circulate chilled fluid to keep the body's core temperature down.

"We found that with the cooling vests, the crews could operate the tanks for a much longer period of time," says LeBlanc. He added that the vests may even provide a tactical advantage over an adversary that typically chooses not to fight during the worst heat of the day.

After a successful performance in the climatic chamber, the vests were delivered to Afghanistan and received excellent reviews from the Canadian troops. "The cooling vests are absolute life savers," says Major A.K. Welsh, National Defence project manager for the NRC test. "They have made the difference between our crews becoming heat casualties to being able to work comfortably through all hours of the day."