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In-depth

The RADARSAT-1 satellite has become an integral tool in tracking icebergs off of the East Coast.
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Technology timeline
By Kathryn Carlson

1912: Prior to 1912, there was no system to track icebergs or guard ships against collisions with floating ice. The tragic fate of the "unsinkable" RMS Titanic, and the loss of more than 1,500 lives, led to demands for an iceberg observation system. For the remainder of the 1912 ice season, the United States Navy patrolled the waters of the Grand Banks and detailed the shifting positions of southerly ice flow.

1913: The International Conference on the Safety of Life at Sea convened in London, England, in November to develop a more permanent iceberg observation system.

1914: Within three months of the conference, the participating maritime nations agreed to monitor the icebergs on several fronts and the International Ice Patrol (IIP) was born. The IIP was established with the mandate to collect data on meteorology and oceanography in order to measure ocean currents, ice drift, salinity levels, and ocean temperatures.



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1921: The IIP published its first annual recordings, allowing for a year-to-year comparison of iceberg flow.

Early 1930s: Aerial surveillance took flight and charting systems were developed in order to provide detailed information regarding ocean currents and the location of icebergs.

1945: Experiments were conducted to determine the effectiveness of radar detection of floating ice and technological developments were soon underway.

1955: A series of oceanographic observation outposts were established aboard light stations and lightships. Today, these outposts remain integral to the collection of data for the purpose of evaluating environmental behaviours such as global warming.

1964: For the first time, a computer was installed on an oceanographic ship. This allowed for more rapid evaluations of iceberg-related data.

1970s: Icebreaking ships became equipped with automatic picture transmission that enabled the ships to receive satellite photographs of ice in Antarctica. Optical satellite systems were developed but their capabilities were limited by weather conditions.

1980s: Drifting buoys were determined to be integral for oceanographic and climate research and were distributed throughout the Antarctic waters. These "drifters" are equipped with sensors and measure sea temperature as well as ocean currents. Side-Looking Airborne Radar (SLAR) also became invaluable to iceberg recognizance operations because of its ability to acquire images regardless of weather conditions.

1995: RADARSAT-1, Canada’s first commercial earth observation satellite, was launched on Nov. 4. The satellite was developed by the Canadian Space Agency and provides images of Earth for both scientific and commercial uses. This satellite system was the first to use Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) which transmits microwave energy onto the ocean surface and then records the reflections.

2002: The European Space Agency launched ENVISAT, an environmental satellite equIIPed with Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ASAR). ASAR can detect changes in surface heights with submillimetre precision.

Today: The Canadian Space Agency is managing the development of RADARSAT-2, which is scheduled to launch in December 2006. RADARSAT-2 will use SAR and multipolarization modes and will follow the same orbit path as RADARSAT-1.

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