ARCHIVED - NRC's Cold Stuff Connection (Part II): Ice Research

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February 06, 2006— Ottawa, Ontario

NRC's Cold Stuff Connection

Snow Research


Ice Research


Even More Ice Research


Over the years, NRC's snow and ice research has ranged from protecting Canadians from avalanches to studying their effects on structures and transportation. NRC even has special facilities to test our northern conditions.

The NRC Centre for Surface Transportation Technology (NRC-CSTT) plays an important role in assessing and testing full-scale vehicles in its Environmental Chamber. NRC-CSTT houses Canada's largest climatic engineering and testing chamber that accommodates everything from heavy railway cars and long, articulated tractor trailers to the newest military light armoured vehicles.

NRC-CSTT's Environmental Chamber
NRC-CSTT's Environmental Chamber

Regardless of the season, NRC staff can subject vehicles to extreme climactic temperatures (down to -51°C) in this "Weather-on-Demand" facility. Moisture and cold ravage vehicle components and materials, so manufacturers and various government organizations seek NRC-CSTT's help in assessing whether vehicles, their components and power systems are rigorous enough to withstand winter's ice, freezing rain and snow. These same groups also require NRC-CSTT staff expertise for studying and testing the effects of fluid-evaporating high temperatures (approaching +55°C).

Marc Garneau, the first Canadian in space (an NRC employee at the time), had a dicey ice experience. In 1984, during his first space flight, a dangerous chunk of ice formed on the shuttle's exterior. The crew used Canadian technology with NRC roots, the Canadarm, as a club to break the ice off the shuttle. This move permitted them to take a much less risky return to Earth.

NRC-IOT's Ice Tank
NRC-IOT's Ice Tank

Located in St. John's, Newfoundland, the NRC Institute for Ocean Technology (NRC-IOT) houses world-class facilities for ocean research, including two Cold Rooms and a massive 90-metre Ice Tank, the longest facility of its kind. There researchers test the effects of cold ocean environments on models of icebreaker ships and offshore structures, such as oil drilling platforms. NRC-IOT researchers also study ice forces on fixed structures like bridges. Their research helps ocean technology industries improve performance, design and safety for the harshest ocean conditions.

In NRC-IOT's Cold Rooms, researchers examine the physical properties of ice. For example, they subject ice samples to fracturing and compression tests and they study the structures of ice crystals. Inside, the Cold Rooms are outfitted with specialized equipment, enabling researchers to capture what is happening to the ice through micro-photography and photography. When the researchers step outside of NRC's Cold Rooms they can assess what is happening to their ice samples by consulting video monitors, various chart recorders, output from data acquisitions systems and computers.


At the NRC Institute for Aerospace Research (NRC-IAR) in Ottawa, unique icing facilities let researchers test and certify aircraft engines, powered tail rotors, and wing sections, to assess whether they can "operate safely in conditions of freezing rain, snow, and clouds containing supercooled water". The NRC-IAR Web site features a success story about icing tests on the S-76 Sikorsky helicopter engine conducted last year in its latest icing facility, a reconditioned propulsion wind tunnel.

Researchers also apply their expertise outside of NRC's specialized facilities too. As part of a collaborative research project, the NRC Institute for Aerospace Research (NRC-IAR) has pilots and researchers who have repeatedly flown the institute's own Convair 580 airplane directly into winter storms, on purpose. Why? To conduct measurement that could ultimately result in safer air travel. How? By improving icing forecasts and by providing pilots with a better understanding of the "areas and altitudes where the conditions in the atmosphere make it more likely that ice will build up on aircraft."

Sir Charles Wright (right) with Lorne Gold (left) at NRC in the 1960's
Sir Charles Wright (right) with Lorne Gold (left) at NRC in the 1960's

NRC's Internationally Renowned Ice Experts

Drs. Lorne Gold and Robert (Bob) Frederking are among NRC's most renowned ice research experts. They have received national and international kudos for their contributions to this field.

In the midst of the Second World War, Dr. Gold and his NRC colleagues collaborated with the British government on a classified project to design a massive aircraft carrier... made of ice. The concept was to use reinforced ice to cheaply construct ships that would be virtually unsinkable and relatively resistant to submarine attacks. The ice-ship project was named "Habakkuk". The idea originated in England, but the ambitious collaboration included: the British government and scientists; NRC staff in the west and in Ottawa; Banff and Jasper national parks; and the universities of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

NRC scientists rushed to complete their research before winter's end in 1943, performing large-scale tests including experimenting with a slab cut from the ice cover of Lake Louise. They also looked at internal refrigeration systems and a new material called pykrete – ice strengthened with 4-14% wood pulp.

Ultimately Project Habakkuk was cancelled by the UK in 1944; however, the project helped NRC develop and contribute important expertise regarding northern or snowy airfields. While the ice ship itself never fully materialized, NRC staff conducted key research that remains useful to this day about the properties of ice and the development of pykrete.

Nirmal Sinha is an NRC-IAR employee who has dedicated his life's work to researching ice and snow properties. Media outlets across the country often request his expertise for answers to questions about snow and ice buildup. Early on in his NRC career, the National Capital Commission asked Nirmal to monitor the Rideau Canal's ice thickness, which he volunteered to do in his spare time. In 1986, he showed how seriously he took this role when he had to cancel a live concert involving 60,000 Winterlude guests on the ice near Dow's Lake. He recognized a "dangerously high displacement of the ice cover" and made the call to keep festival goers safe, even if it meant that he wouldn't be popular.

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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