How 'smart ice' is helping to save lives on Canada's thinning sea ice

Researchers will fit sensors to the sea ice in five areas across Nunavut, providing communities with real-time measurements of ice thickness.Photograph: Courtesy of Trevor Bell, Memorial University of NewfoundlandScience[1]

How 'smart ice' is helping to save lives on Canada's thinning sea ice

Warmer winters mean lethally unpredictable ice, leaving already isolated communities too frightened to venture out for food and fuel. A new ice sensor project could change all that

The four men were napping in their Bombardier snow vehicle when disaster struck. They had stopped for a break on an overnight cargo run down the west coast of Hudson Bay when the ice beneath them gave way.

Normally thick enough to take the load, the sea ice in northern Canada formed late last season. As the vehicle plunged into the freezing water, only one man escaped. The accident in January 2017 was not a freak event.

Warmer winters have brought a lethal unpredictability to those who travel on the sea ice, often by snowmobile, to fetch firewood, reach hunting grounds, and buy supplies from nearby towns. After an especially warm winter in 2010, a survey of the population in Nain, on the remote north-eastern coast, found one in 12 had fallen through sea ice. Beyond the immediate danger the incidents posed, the psychological impact was devastating.

More than two thirds of the community said they were afraid to go out on the ice. People went without fresh food. They burned wooden pallets and furniture to warm their homes.

This season, life may be different. Following successful trials in Nain and elsewhere, researchers will fit sensors to the sea ice in five areas across the vast Inuit homeland of Nunavut. From Cambridge Bay in the west to Qikiqtarjuaq, a thousand miles to the east, the SmartICE project will provide local communities with real-time measurements of sea ice thickness, revealing routes that are safe, and others which are not.

An overview of sea ice thickness for one area of Nunavut, overlaid with an example of a route between two islands.

Photograph: Courtesy of Trevor Bell, Memorial University of Newfoundland

"It gives people peace of mind about what they are travelling on," said Joey Angnatok, a community leader from Nain who was involved in the trial. "A lot of the time when you're driving a snowmobile on white, pristine ice, you take for granted that it's OK to go over."
For the Inuit, the ice season starts around December and runs for six months or so. In that time, landfast ice spreads out from the shores and where it meets the water, it teems with life, drawing hunters in search of seals, seabirds, polar bears and whales.

It is treacherous territory, but the hunters survive on traditional knowledge built up over generations. To check the ice is secure, people strike it with their harpoons. If three "darts" don't break through, it is generally safe to walk on.

Nature's warning signs are beautiful at times. Under the right conditions, frost flowers form on top of the ice, a red flag that it is dangerously thin. "There have been a few occasions when those little flowers probably saved our lives," said Angnatok. "When you're driving along at night and see these flowers, you get off and check the ice. All of the sudden the harpoon will go straight through." But other dangers are not so obvious.

Occasionally, snow piles up on water rather than ice, and seems completely safe to cross. Failing to spot it can be a lethal mistake.

A "smartqamutiq" - a traditional sledge fitted out with sensors that is towed behind a snowmobile along routes the community use most. Photograph: Courtesy of Trevor Bell, Memorial University of Newfoundland

The Inuit's hard-earned experience of sea ice is crucial for surviving the season.

But with climate change warming the air above and the water beneath the ice, the conditions are less predictable, and traditional knowledge has become less reliable. What SmartICE aims to do is bolster traditional knowledge rather than replace it. "By preserving that knowledge, you help to preserve the culture and lifestyle in the face of changing climate," said Trevor Bell, the project's lead scientist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. "We are under no illusion that someone can safely navigate the ice solely using SmartICE information. They still need to understand the ice, how weather affects the ice, and how it changes over the winter, that is crucial."

Over the coming weeks and months, researchers working with local Inuit groups in Cambridge Bay, Arctic Bay, Iqaluit, Arviat, and Qikiqtarjuaq, will drive tall, pole-like sensors into the sea ice that monitor the thickness of the ice and any snow on top. While those beam back information about the ice at fixed locations, more data will be gathered from a "smart qamutiq", a traditional sledge fitted out with sensors that is towed behind a snowmobile along routes the community use most. The data is then added to satellite maps on a website and colour-coded, with safe routes marked in green, difficult routes in yellow, and dangerous routes, where the ice is only six inches or so thick, appearing red.

Sea ice thickness along a commonly-used route as mapped using data from the smartqamutiq.

Photograph: Courtesy of Trevor Bell, Memorial University of Newfoundland

If all goes to plan, the project will do more than make travel on the sea ice safer. Bell runs SmartICE as a social enterprise with the intention that the equipment is assembled and operated by Inuit groups themselves. The hope is that involving the local youth, in particular, will boost their technical skills and employment prospects, and improve mental health problems that leave the isolated communities with some of the highest suicide rates in the world. "The smartest and the brightest in these communities leave and go to university.

We want to target those with more challenges, more employment barriers," said Bell.
[2] "Anything that can help people in these isolated communities is good," said Angnatok. "It means people can have that much more security in something they do. I call the sea ice my playground.

It enables me to go out and breathe the fresh air, see the land that I want to see, and enjoy my surroundings.

It's our main highway."


  1. ^ Science (
  2. ^ highest suicide rates in the world (

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *