Inuit Are Embedding Sensors in the Ice Because It's Getting Dangerously Thin

The SmartICE project combines traditional knowledge and new technology.

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Sep 2 2016, 1:00pm

Image: SmartICE 2016

Inuit communities in Canada's North have lived on the ice for centuries, and rely on it for hunting, transportation, and a way of life. Now, because of climate change, the ice is turning to slush. In many places, it's becoming unsafe. So two Arctic communities are installing high-tech sea ice monitors that can track changes in the ice.

"We're not trying to replace traditional knowledge," said Trevor Bell of the Memorial University of Newfoundland, a collaborator on SmartICE, which is being piloted around Nain, Labrador, and Pond Inlet, Nunavut. "We're trying to augment traditional knowledge, with new technology."

Nunatsiavut, the self-governing Inuit region of Labrador that includes Nain, has lost 73 percent of its sea ice cover in the past four decades. In a survey of Inuit living there after the 2009/10 winter season, which was unusually warm and rainy, one-in-twelve said they'd fallen through the ice. Two-thirds of Inuit reported feeling frightened when travelling over it.

Image: SmartICE 2016

SmartICE uses sensors stored in plastic tubes, which can float in the water like buoys. They freeze right into the ice, monitoring places that hunters believe might be dangerous.

Sled-mounted sensors can also pick up readings from a snowmobile or qamutiik (an Inuit sled) as it travels. That sensor works by "sending electromagnetic waves through the ice," Bell told me. Because saltwater is highly conductive—much more so than the ice—this device can detect where the water starts and ice ends, giving a reading for thickness.

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Nain and Pond Inlet both have different ice conditions: Nunatsiavut, for one thing, is farther south. Pond Inlet, a predominantly Inuit hamlet on the north end of Baffin Island, is feeling pressures around shipping and transportation routes as the Arctic opens up.

"One of the biggest issues is a mining company proposing to do year-round shipping with icebreakers," Shelly Elverum, who lives in Pond Inlet and works with the Ikaarvik Project, a group that connects northern communities with scientists from the south. "It's not just natural destruction of ice, but man-made destruction that the community fears."

Andrew Arreak, the SmartICE research coordinator in Pond Inlet, told me that monitoring changes in sea ice was identified as a priority by his community. "We'd get researchers who'd come up here during the spring and summer, and collect their data and give hardly any feedback to the community," he told me over the phone from Pond Inlet. "Once they got the information they needed, they'd take off right away."

Image: SmartICE 2016

Arreak, who also works with Ikaarvik, went to meetings in the hamlet, and talked to hunters and trappers about what they wanted. "The ice conditions were a top priority for the community, because it was getting unpredictable to travel on in certain areas," he said. "The season is coming and going earlier each year."

Before deciding where to install the buoys, Arreak talked to hunters and trappers. "I asked where they would like them, instead of me telling them," he said. "They know the ice."

Bell and the other researchers hope to eventually expand SmartICE to other communities. He envisions one day creating a smartphone app (where there's access to a network, at least) that could send out alerts to people travelling on the ice. This sort of information wouldn't just be useful to Inuit and scientists, he said, but to the growing number of companies setting up shop in the north. "We're starting to discuss how we can evolve this into a social enterprise in the north, and have communities run this as a business," he said.

SmartICE exists to complement and support traditional knowledge in the face of a rapidly melting Arctic. No matter how much technology is available, "you still need traditional knowledge," Bell said. "You're never going to replace that."