Geographer David Barber, an international expert on sea ice dynamics, has documented the substantial effect of climate change on Arctic ice and snow. He also helped create an international community of Arctic researchers who collaborated on large-scale projects – efforts that raised the profile of Canadian scholars and the University of Manitoba.
In addition to having published over 300 peer-reviewed articles, he has become a high-level science communicator who has shared with the public the importance of ice evolution in the Arctic.
“He realized that it was not enough to publish scientific papers and wait for the results to reach politicians. He took the step that many do not want to take: popularizing science and trying to make it better understood by the public and its impacts on the North,” explains Martin Fortier, researcher on the Arctic based at Université Laval.
“He had a huge impact,” Dr. Fortier says of Dr. Barber, his research, and his ability to communicate it.
He was a hands-on researcher who enthusiastically tried new technologies and collected important data with detection equipment in the North.
With his shaggy hair and beard and his ubiquitous Birkenstocks, always worn with socks, the tall and burly Dr. Barber was dubbed the “techno hippie” by his colleagues.
During fieldwork, he could repair and rig just about anything. His father was a pilot and Dr Barber made his first solo flight aged 13, according to his son Jeremy. While doing research in the Arctic, he collected data using a motorized paraglider equipped with the latest equipment.
His field research uncovered many sobering phenomena, such as the fact that some of the still-frozen Arctic sea ice that looked solid and cold on the surface was actually ‘rotten ice’. which was porous and fragile. Many of his most cited studies show how the presence of sea ice affects Arctic food chains.
Dr Barber also contributed to a shocking 2017 Arctic Council report predicting that the Arctic Ocean would be largely free of summer sea ice by the 2030s.
When he was out in the wild, when things got dangerous, Dr. Barber always knew what to do.
“It made you feel like you were always in control,” says Dr. Fortier. He first met Dr. Barber in 1994 when they shared a research camp. They were caught in a snowstorm and had to return to base by snowmobile.
“I trusted him completely, even though I didn’t really know him,” says Dr. Fortier, who credits Dr. Barber’s cool head and knowledge with helping them get home slowly but safely. security.
“Just working with him in the field was a source of joy,” recalls Jody Deming, professor of oceanography at the University of Washington. “Dave was someone who felt good about himself. He was genuine. He knew who he was and he made you feel comfortable.
He once taught Dr. Deming how to take a snow sample by digging a snow pit – a surprisingly difficult undertaking.
“He just stood there patiently with a big smile on his face and then showed me how to slide the tool into the snow wall I had made. And laughed with me while I messed it up,” says Dr. Deming, who quickly became adept at the task.
Dr. Barber worked closely with esteemed oceanographer Louis Fortier of Laval University – who died in 2020 – and Dr. Deming to set up international collaborations that worked on large-scale research projects. This included ArcticNet, a Network of Centers of Excellence, the Canadian Arctic Continental Shelf Exchange Study, and the Hudson Bay System Study, a collaboration between the University of Manitoba and Manitoba Hydro.
He helped organize important research infrastructure projects in the Arctic, including the Churchill Marine Observatory and the CCGS Amundsen, a former Coast Guard icebreaker that is still in use as a research vessel. (It has hosted researchers from every Canadian province and more than 20 countries over the past two decades.)
“Dave was always two steps ahead of everyone else,” says Tim Papakyriakou, a professor in the Department of Environment and Geography at the University of Manitoba, of Dr. Barber’s ability to plan huge projects .
He was the principal investigator of the International Polar Year’s Circumpolar Flaw-Lead System Study, which included 350 researchers from 27 countries examining fault channels, which are waterways between sheets of ice attached to the earth and those that float freely. The Amundsen wintered for 293 days near Cape Bathurst beginning in 2007 to collect data showing the effects of global warming.
“Dave always read and he didn’t always read geography, but books on quantum physics, philosophy and all the natural sciences,” says Dr Papakyriakou.
He was ahead of his time in recognizing Indigenous ways of knowing and helped organize events at the University of Manitoba and the International Polar Year Study Project which involved Indigenous peoples. Inuit.
This broader knowledge base may have helped Dr. Barber see context in his work. “He could work at all scales, from the very small scale of the size of snow grains on sea ice to the very large scale and how ice moves throughout the Arctic Ocean,” says Dr Deming.
Dr. Barber published prolifically, did fieldwork, organized ambitious projects, and spent time with his family and hobbies – he worked tirelessly and never thought of his job as work. .
“I can’t believe I get paid to do this,” he once told Dr. Papakyriakou.
Dr. Barber’s career and life were cut short after he suffered cardiac arrest and died on April 15 at the age of 61.
David George Barber was born on November 28, 1960 in Dauphin, Man., to Victor and June Barber. He was known as Little Dave by older brothers Sam, Jamie and Doug. The siblings all learned to fly and spent time at the family cabin on the Waterhen River – a fly-in community at the time – hunting and fishing.
“He grew up in a very adventurous family,” says Jeremy Barber.
David’s father, Vic, was fascinated by local history and the travels of early fur traders. So he recreated some of their canoe trips. As a teenager, David took part in these voyages and discovered the north, including Hudson’s Bay.
In high school, his life revolved around the basketball team, not homework.
“He had the furthest thing from an academic start,” Jeremy says. “He almost got kicked off the basketball team because his math grades were so bad.”
However, he performed well enough to graduate and be accepted into the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation Studies, where he majored in human physiology. There he met student Lucette Robidoux, whom he married in 1986.
During his undergraduate studies, he took a job for two summers working in the field with a fisheries biologist. “He took a liking to science,” says Jeremy.
He completed a master’s degree at the U of M’s Institute of Natural Resources, concluding this program in 1987, then did a doctorate at the University of Waterloo in geography, focusing on arctic climatology, which he completed in 1992.
A year later, with two young sons – Jeremy and Julien – the Barbers returned to Manitoba where Dr. Barber took up an assistant professorship at the U of M. Daughter Jamie was born shortly after Barber’s return. family.
In 1994, he founded the Earth Observation Science Center, which started as a small team that included him, a part-time staff member, and two graduate students. (Now it hires 148 full-time researchers and 21 adjunct researchers.)
In 1999, Mr. Barber was a full professor and was named a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in 2002. He became Associate Dean for Research of the Faculty of Environment in 2004 and Canada Level 1 Research Fellow in Arctic Systems Science in 2008, serving in that position until his death.
For his research and advocacy, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, which also recognized his achievements with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2016 and has received numerous other awards.
Jeremy Barber, who accompanied his father on a research trip to Nunavut when he was nine, still wonders what his father had to do behind the scenes to allow him to come. He and his siblings frequently went into the field with Dr. Barber, as did Lucette. “I really admired him for that,” his son says. “He had a very technical job; it would not have been easy to accompany us. But he had a life where he took all the things he loved and put them together.
Lucette Barber herself has been involved in planning, communications, and outreach for the Center for Earth Observation Science and other U of M projects.
Dr. Barber regularly took research sabbaticals, and his family accompanied him to places such as Pasadena (while he worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory), Malawi, Indonesia, and Norway, among others.
In his spare time, Dr. Barber would explore the outdoors in Waterhen with his family or colleagues, and he took a serious interest in carpentry in his later years, building a guest cabin and other things in his home.
“It was the same thing he did at work,” Jeremy says. “Solve problems.”
Dr. Barber is survived by his wife, three children and two grandchildren.
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