Walking on thin ice is about to get safer. Along the remote coast of Labrador, traditional Inuit knowledge and new-age technology are joining forces to create a system that could not only save lives, but promises to make Canada a world leader in real-time mapping.
The SmartICE system — actually an acronym for Sea-ice Monitoring and Real Time Information for Coastal Environment — will combine radar technology with real time tracking from Inuit and sensors.
The program, which will operate as a collaboration between traditional Inuit ice experts, university geographers, industries and the government of Canada and Nunatsiavut (the Inuit-controlled region of Labrador), hopes to increase safety for people living and traveling in an environment growing increasingly unpredictable due to climate change.
In the winter of 2009-2010 one in 12 people went through the ice, says Trevor Bell, a geography professor at Memorial University and a lead investigator on the project. And he predicts the situation will only get worse.
“The really dangerous times are when the ice is forming,” he says. That’s where SmartICE comes in. First they measure the sea ice thickness by embedding special sensors directly into the ice. That data is cross-referenced and combined with radar imagery as well as reports from Inuit experts, creating a map of hazardous ice zones. The result is a customizable interface that focuses on safety. People will be able to download information about different areas in real-time on computers in local communities.
“It’s a little bit like a highway map for the Inuit,” Bell says, adding that this isn’t just another climate change study about how much sea ice has been lost. “It’s action: how can we make a difference.”
The program is starting off in two locations in Nunatsiavut — Rigolet and Nain — and one nearby in North West River, Newfoundland. It will be available on printed maps or community computers and through Facebook. Bell says they don’t have a phone application because many of the areas don’t even have coverage yet — but the possibility is certainly there.
“One of our challenges is making sure that with the low bandwidth we’re moving the stuff to the community.”
Tom Sheldon, Nunatsiavut’s Director of Environment and a manager of the developing program, says that the goal is to build a commercial technology that will be partly controlled as a private business in the hands of the Inuit.
Even shipping companies — which have drawn Inuit ire by slicing through traditional hunting routes — have taken an active interest. By using this new system, captains will be able to see the most appropriate route at a particular moment. It will be an important tool in navigating through sensitive sea use treaties as that will only become more relevant as melting ice opens shipping routes.
“(Transportation routes) might have to be negotiated on a weekly or monthly basis,” Bell says.
And others will benefit as well — Bell says the maps can offer simplified versions appropriate to recreational ice users.
If the initial Nunatsiavut trial — happening over the next few weeks — works, the system will then be marketed across the western Arctic where it could also help guide ships from breaking through ice important to caribou migration routes.
It’s about dealing with climate change in the north by augmenting, not replacing, Inuit knowledge, Bell says.
And with the partnership of industry, federal and local governments and universities, it appears the program won’t lack the needed support.