Finding safe routes across melting Arctic ice with new tech and Inuit knowledge

SmartICE combines traditional Inuit knowledge and satellite technology

When Inuk hunter Joseph Monteith went through the ice in Frobisher Bay, he had seen the signs coming long before. But it was already too late.

The first domino, as Monteith puts it, had already fallen.

“Our first indication that the ice was thin was when the back of my skidoo broke through the ice,” he recalls.

Not knowing which way was safe, Monteith and his hunting partner Kelly Akpaleapik charged forward in an attempt to get out of the bad ice. They soon realized that they had actually gone deeper into the rotten ice. Another domino.

“At that point I started to panic and started to pick up speed.”

The pair found themselves with a giant crack ahead, and nothing but bad ice behind them. They came to a stop, hopeless, and the series of events that had begun with one lapse in navigation reached its inevitable conclusion: the ice beneath them gave way, plunging the pair, their skidoo and supplies into the briny Arctic water.

Data to the rescue

The serious situation in which Monteith and Akpaleapik found themselves is not unique; in fact, it’s increasingly common in the Arctic.

The warming Arctic is causing the sea ice to become thinner, cover a smaller part of the ocean and to last for less time. The maximum sea ice extent reported by NASA in March was the second lowest ever recorded. The lowest ever was in 2017, representing a continuation of a decades-long trend of shrinking ice.

That trend is represented in the thickness of the ice as well. Between 1975 and 2012, ice in the centre of the Arctic Ocean thinned by 65 per cent during the winter. In the shoulder seasons, when the ice is at its most dangerous, the situation is much worse: September ice thickness shrank by 85 per cent during that same four decades.

In 2010, a warm, rainy spring in Labrador created a dangerous scenario on the ice local communities depend on for hunting and travel.

By the summer, one in 12 people surveyed in Nain, Labrador, had fallen through the ice that year. So they reached out to Trevor Bell, who was then developing research priorities for the Nunatsiavut Government, for help.

“People were afraid to travel on their traditional trails,” Bell told DeSmog Canada. “People were afraid to use the ice.”

Bell began work on what would become known as SmartICE. The system includes electronic buoys frozen into the ice near communities as well as mobile devices, so-called SmartQAMUTIKs (named for the traditional Inuit sleds), all of which gather and relay information about ice thickness and snow depth.

That information is collected into colour-coded, intuitive maps that can be downloaded onto computers or mobile devices to help people plan their travel across the ice.

The maps are augmented with a legend developed by Inuit communities in order to make the most sense and convey the most relevant information to the Inuit using them.

That stands in stark contrast to the former best-available technology — government-produced sea ice maps — which are oriented towards the shipping industry rather than northern residents.

“It’s not intuitive for Inuit because thick ice, which is safe to travel on, is coloured red, because of course that ice presents a hazard for shipping,” said Bell.

The government maps are also not produced in the winter, because shipping isn’t happening then, and use complicated jargon.

“We’re filling that void by providing something at the right scale, produced at the right time,” he said.

Precarious pathways to sustainability

There are currently nine communities using SmartICE, and another 12 on a waitlist.

“I get a call a week from different communities who want smartICE,” said Bell.

Expanding the program means building new buoys (around five or 10 per community), new qamutiiks, and training more people in using the technology. That expansion is expensive. But it also benefits northern communities in other ways, says Bell: there are now plans to create a production centre in Nain, where the high-tech tools will be built.

To fund the expansion, Bell wants to partner with businesses across the North that would benefit from more reliable and consistent information about sea ice conditions — industries like tourism, fishing, or shipping.

“They all depend on safe sea-ice travel, and a secure ice platform from which to conduct their operations,” he said, adding that a single tourist going through the ice could set the tourism industry back decades.

SmartICE relies on a system of buoys, frozen into the ice, combined with local knowledge. L-R: Sgt. Titus Allooloo, Canadian Rangers, Moses Amagoalik, SmartICE operations, Pond Inlet, and Trevor Bell, SmartICE. Image by Michael Schmidt.

SmartICE has already partnered with an Arctic Bay-based outfitter, Arctic Bay Adventures, to make their operations safer, and, as Bell puts it, “reduce the risk of climate change impacts” on their business.

Government has been part of the program since the beginning, with different agencies and institutions giving money at different times. But Bell believes there is a longer-term role for the government, one that would be mutually beneficial.

“If I had enough ministers in a room I could make an argument that this makes sense,” he said. “We have the ability to avoid search-and-rescue operations in the North.”

Aerial search-and-rescue units are based in Trenton, Ontario, and sending help can be very costly. One particularly dramatic example in 2013, in which a group of tourists and guides were trapped on an ice floe, reportedly cost the government more than $2.7 million.

For Monteith and Akpaleapik, rescue operations were conducted from nearby Iqaluit.

In Inuit culture, Monteith says, it’s important to return to the site of an accident in order to move on. He has since returned to where he went through the ice, and the island where he spent an excruciating night awaiting rescue. For Monteith and Akpaleapik, the rescue operations were conducted from nearby Iqaluit.

The pair had dragged themselves out of the water, the ice crumbling beneath them over and over — for Monteith, nine times — and plunging them back into the frozen bay. They walked six hours to an island just two kilometres away, and spent the night huddling together and burning grass and shrubs for warmth.

Monteith doesn’t know whether SmartICE could have prevented him from suffering that fate, an event that still haunts him with post-traumatic stress disorder. But he acknowledges that, for Inuit, “doing your homework about the area you’re going to go to” is a core part of the practices that have been passed down through generations to keep hunters safe.

Bell agrees.

“It’s a business model that’s consistent with Inuit societal values — caring for the environment, caring for the community,” he says.

“I don’t think I need to explain why ice is important for Inuit.”

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