Geographer David Barber, an international expert on the dynamics of sea ice, documented the substantial effect of climate change on Arctic ice and snow. He also helped foster an international community of Arctic researchers who collaborated on large-scale projects – efforts that raised the profile of Canadian academics and the University of Manitoba.
In addition to publishing more than 300 peer-reviewed papers, he became a high-profile science communicator who shared with the public how changing ice in the Arctic mattered.
“He realized that publishing scientific papers and waiting for the results to come through to politicians wasn’t enough. He took the leap that many don’t want to – to popularize science and try to make it better understood by the public and their impacts on the north,” says Martin Fortier, an Arctic researcher based at Laval University.
“He had a huge impact,” Dr. Fortier says of Dr. Barber and his research and ability to communicate it.
He was a hands-on researcher who eagerly tried out new technologies and gathered important data with sensing equipment in the north.
With his shaggy hair and beard and ubiquitous Birkenstocks, always worn with socks, tall and burly Dr. Barber was dubbed the “techno hippie” by colleagues.
During field work, he could fix and rig up just about anything. His father was a pilot and Dr. Barber took his first solo flight at age 13, according to his son Jeremy. While doing research in the Arctic, he would collect data by using a powered paraglider loaded with the latest gear.
His field research discovered many sobering phenomena, such as the fact that some of the Arctic’s always-frozen sea ice that appeared solid and cold on the surface was in fact “rotten ice” that 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, projecting that the Arctic Ocean would be largely free of sea ice in summer as soon as the 2030s.
While out in nature, when things got dangerous, Dr. Barber always knew what to do.
“He gave you the feeling of always being in control,” Dr. Fortier says. He first got to know Dr. Barber in 1994 when they shared a research camp. They got caught in a snowstorm and had to navigate back to base on snowmobiles.
“I had full confidence in him although 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.
“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 was comfortable in his own skin. He was authentic. He knew who he was and he put you at ease.”
He once taught Dr. Deming how to take a snow sample by digging a snow pit – a surprisingly challenging endeavour.
“He just stood there patiently with a big grin on his face, then showed me how to slide the tool into the wall of snow I’d made. And laughed with me as I’d mess it up,” says Dr. Deming who soon 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. That included ArcticNet, a Network of Centres of Excellence, the Canadian Arctic Shelf Exchange Study and the Hudson Bay System Study, a collaboration between the University of Manitoba and Manitoba Hydro.
He helped organize major Arctic research infrastructure projects, including the Churchill Marine Observatory and the CCGS Amundsen, a former Coast Guard ice breaker that’s still being used as a research vessel. (It has hosted researchers from all the Canadian provinces and more than 20 countries over the past two decades.)
“Dave was always two steps ahead of everyone else,” Tim Papakyriakou, a professor in the Department of Environment and Geography at the University of Manitoba, says of Dr. Barber’s ability to plan huge projects.
He was the principal investigator in the International Polar Year – Circumpolar Flaw-Lead system study, which included 350 researchers from 27 countries looking at flaw leads, which are waterways between ice patches that are attached to the land and those that float free. The Amundsen overwintered for 293 days near Cape Bathurst starting in 2007 to collect data that showed the effects of global warming.
“Dave was always reading and he was not always reading geography, but books on quantum physics, philosophy and all the natural sciences,” Dr. Papakyriakou says.
He was ahead of his time around acknowledging Indigenous ways of knowing, and helped organize events at the University of Manitoba and as part of the International Polar Year study project that involved Inuit peoples.
This wider knowledge base may have helped Dr. Barber see context in his work. “He could work across all scales, from the very small scale of snow grain size on sea ice to the very large scale and how ice is moving across the entire Arctic Ocean,” Dr. Deming says.
Dr. Barber published prolifically, did field work, organized ambitious projects and spent time with his family and on his hobbies – he worked tirelessly and never saw his job as work.
“I can’t believe I’m being paid to do this,” he once said to 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 Nov. 28, 1960, in Dauphin, Man., to Victor and June Barber. He was known as Little Dave by elder 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 household,” Jeremy Barber says.
David’s father, Vic, was fascinated by local history and the travels of the early fur traders, so re-created some of their travels by canoe. As a teen, David went on these trips and got to experience the north, including Hudson 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 hit the books enough to graduate and be accepted to the University of Manitoba in the 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 doing field work with a biologist specializing in fisheries. “He got a taste for science,” Jeremy says.
He completed a master’s at the Natural Resources Institute at U of M, wrapping up that program in 1987 and then did a PhD 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 moved back to Manitoba where Dr. Barber took a position as assistant professor at U of M. Daughter Jamie was born not long after the family’s return.
In 1994, he founded the Centre for Earth Observation Science, which began as a tiny outfit that included him, a part-time staff member and two grad students. (Now, it engages 148 full-time and 21 adjunct researchers.)
By 1999, Dr. Barber was a full professor and was named a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in 2002. He became associate dean of research for the Faculty of Environment in 2004 and Canada Research Chair Tier 1 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 named an officer of the Order of Canada in 2016 and 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 along. He and his siblings frequently went out 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 have us along. But he had a life where he took all of the things he loved and put them all together.”
Lucette Barber herself became involved in planning, communications and outreach for the Centre for Earth Observation Science and other U of M projects.
Dr. Barber routinely took research sabbaticals and his family accompanied him to places such as Pasadena (while he worked at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory), Malawi, Indonesia and Norway, among others.
In his spare time, Dr. Barber would explore the outdoors at Waterhen with his family or colleagues, and he got serious about carpentry in his later years, building a guest cabin and other things at his home.
“It was the same thing he did at work,” Jeremy says. “Solving problems.”
Dr. Barber leaves his wife, three children and two grandchildren.
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