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Darkening glaciers: Scientists examine wildfire effect on Canadian ice

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When Ben Pelto does his field research on glaciers in the Rocky and Columbia mountains there are distinct perks.

The views aren’t bad, if you like the breathtaking kind.

He also gets to drink water that comes straight from the source.

However, on recent visits the water has tasted less like pristine glacier and more like soot.

“When it’s fire season you can taste the smoke in the water. It’s a bit of a bummer, because you look forward to this crisp cold water, but it has this funky taste,” said Pelto, who has been monitoring glaciers, like the Conrad, south of Golden, B.C., for the last five years, as part of a research project at the University of Northern British Columbia.

Researchers are concerned over what they are calling the darkening of the ice on western Canadian glaciers, which is caused by smoke and ash from nearby wildfires. (Margot Vore)

It’s not the taste that concerns Pelto so much as the darkening of the ice, especially last summer when wildfires raged across British Columbia.

“The surface of the glaciers was the dirtiest I’ve ever seen it,” Pelto said.

The darker the ice the more sunlight it absorbs.

Scientists are concerned forest fire fallout will speed up the melt of glaciers already in retreat.

On the Alberta side of the Rockies, hydrologist John Pomeroy studies the Peyto and Athabasca glaciers through the Centre of Hydrology and Coldwater Laboratory in Canmore.

He’s also been finding deposits of ash, likely blown in from wildfires in B.C.

John Pomeroy, the director of the Centre for Hydrology and Coldwater Laboratory in Canmore, shows off an instrument called a pyranometer. He and his students mount them over the ice to measure solar radiation. (Allison Dempster/CBC)

“We’re fairly certain it’s coming from these fires. You can follow the smoke plumes from various atmospheric models and see them affecting it,” Pomeroy said.

Typically in the summer, when the snow has melted away, glaciers absorb roughly 60 per cent of the sun’s rays, Pomeroy said.

“The last two summers have been a shock. Last summer we saw a 70 per cent of the solar radiation was being absorbed on the glacier surfaces. This summer we’ve seen 80 per cent absorbed,” he said.

He worries that’s contributing to a faster melt rate, but he says it’s tricky to measure the effect of wildfires on glaciers.

Darker ice absorbs more sun, and researchers are concerned the darkening caused by forest fires will speed up the glaciers’ melt rate. (Ben Pelto)

One complicating factor is all the smoke.

“There were days last August when the ice was almost certainly melting more slowly than it would have without the fires because of the smoky sky, but the ash will last much longer than the smoke has. And so we’re putting this into our models now to estimate the net effect on this.”

For University of Calgary glaciologist Shawn Marshall, understanding that net effect is crucial.

Since 2000, he’s been studying the impact of climate change on the shrinking Haig glacier in the Rockies.

“If you’re getting a bad fire season, it’s already hot and dry. It’s already a tough summer for the glaciers. So, if we’re actually getting these darker glaciers, it’s just like a kick when you’re down a little bit — it’s even worse.”

Pelto said in his five years of research, last year was the dirtiest he’s every seen the B.C. glaciers, when wildfires consumed large parts of the province.

Scientists, like Marshall, say more research is needed, but they’re facing an unsettling prospect. Because of intensifying wildfire seasons their forecasts for Rocky mountain glaciers, and the river systems they feed, may be overly optimistic.

“It’s a potentially important effect that’s missing right now in our models. So, for the river forecast projections for Alberta and Saskatchewan it’s pretty important to know how long these glaciers will be with us and it’s starting to look like the fires will be part of that story.”

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More groups join in support of women in STEM program at Carleton

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OTTAWA — Major companies and government partners are lending their support to Carleton University’s newly established Women in Engineering and Information Technology Program.

The list of supporters includes Mississauga-based construction company EllisDon.

The latest to announce their support for the program also include BlackBerry QNX, CIRA (Canadian Internet Registration Authority), Ericsson, Nokia, Solace, Trend Micro, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, CGI, Gastops, Leonardo DRS, Lockheed Martin Canada, Amdocs and Ross.

The program is officially set to launch this September.

It is being led by Carleton’s Faculty of Engineering and Design with the goal of establishing meaningful partnerships in support of women in STEM.  

The program will host events for women students to build relationships with industry and government partners, create mentorship opportunities, as well as establish a special fund to support allies at Carleton in meeting equity, diversity and inclusion goals.

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VR tech to revolutionize commercial driver training

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Serious Labs seems to have found a way from tragedy to triumph? The Edmonton-based firm designs and manufactures virtual reality simulators to standardize training programs for operators of heavy equipment such as aerial lifts, cranes, forklifts, and commercial trucks. These simulators enable operators to acquire and practice operational skills for the job safety and efficiency in a risk-free virtual environment so they can work more safely and efficiently.

The 2018 Humboldt bus catastrophe sent shock waves across the industry. The tragedy highlighted the need for standardized commercial driver training and testing. It also contributed to the acceleration of the federal government implementing a Mandatory Entry-Level Training (MELT) program for Class 1 & 2 drivers currently being adopted across Canada. MELT is a much more rigorous standard that promotes safety and in-depth practice for new drivers.

Enter Serious Labs. By proposing to harness the power of virtual reality (VR), Serious Labs has earned considerable funding to develop a VR commercial truck driving simulator.

The Government of Alberta has awarded $1 million, and Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) is contributing an additional $2 million for the simulator development. Commercial deployment is estimated to begin in 2024, with the simulator to be made available across Canada and the United States, and with the Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA) helping to provide simulator tests to certify that driver trainees have attained the appropriate standard. West Tech Report recently took the opportunity to chat with Serious Labs CEO, Jim Colvin, about the environmental and labour benefits of VR Driver Training, as well as the unique way that Colvin went from angel investor to CEO of the company.

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Next-Gen Tech Company Pops on New Cover Detection Test

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While the world comes out of the initial stages of the pandemic, COVID-19 will be continue to be a threat for some time to come. Companies, such as Zen Graphene, are working on ways to detect the virus and its variants and are on the forefronts of technology.

Nanotechnology firm ZEN Graphene Solutions Ltd. (TSX-Venture:ZEN) (OTCPK:ZENYF), is working to develop technology to help detect the COVID-19 virus and its variants. The firm signed an exclusive agreement with McMaster University to be the global commercializing partner for a newly developed aptamer-based, SARS-CoV-2 rapid detection technology.

This patent-pending technology uses clinical samples from patients and was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. The test is considered extremely accurate, scalable, saliva-based, affordable, and provides results in under 10 minutes.

Shares were trading up over 5% to $3.07 in early afternoon trade.

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