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SmartICE technology means safer travel on Labrador's north coast

Program run by Nunatsiavut government documents changing ice conditions

SmartICE smart komatik

A snowmobiler drags a 'smart komatik', the tool that uses electromagnetic fields to capture SmartICE data. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

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People in Nain haven't put their snowmobiles away for the season, with the harbour ice still thick enough for eager hunters to venture out for seals and Arctic char.

But in a world of climate change, traditional routes are less reliable and could become more dangerous to travel on — and snowmobile users in Nain hope technology can keep them safe on the ice, a critically important environment for the Inuit.

Sea-ice Monitoring And Real-Time Information for Coastal Environments, or SmartICE, is run through the Nain Research Centre of the Nunatsiavut Government, in partnership with Memorial University. 

The program draws data from buoys that measure the temperature of the ice and links up to a satellite. It also uses manual ice monitoring stations where teams measure the ice using a heated wire and a series of stakes which are also used to measure snow depth.

SmartICE monitoring station

One of the SmartICE monitoring stations near Nain. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

"In the spring and the fall, it's where the ice is a little bit different," said Rodd Laing, Research Manager for the Nunatsiavut Government.

"That's when things can really get dangerous, so having more information during that time period is really important."

Out on the ice

Out on the ice, Joey Angnatok drags a 'smart komatik,'  a large sensor that works similar to sonar, using electromagnetic fields to measure the thickness of the ice.

"I just go around and go to all the safe spots. And there have been dangerous spots now that we have gone to, just to see what the thickness of the ice is," said Angnatok, who works with the SmartICE program.

"What's good today is not necessarily what's good tomorrow, especially with temperatures like this."

Joey Angnatok

Joey Angnatok measures ice thickness, crucial data in the spring and fall. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

The real-time data is useful now, but there's also value in the long-term.

"Just to give you an idea of what the ice is doing every year. And this year was a good year for the amount of snow on the ice. Overall it was a good year for young seals to be born, people are seeing them everywhere now," said Angnatok.

The SmartICE program also draws on knowledge through conversation.

"We've brought harvesters and people that travel on the ice regularly to come and meet with the science team at SmartICE to come and discuss areas of importance for Inuit, areas that should be avoided," Laing said. 

Local and industry benefits

Laing said with sea ice so important for the Inuit, the key difference in the research SmartICE does, as opposed to more academic study, is that it matters on a local scale.

"Across the Arctic people are doing lots of research on ice but [not] in terms of community-level information that's relevant to community members and people,"  Laing said.

Rodd Laing

Rodd Laing says they're looking to make SmartICE data available on a website soon. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

"Local information, I think that's the important thing."

Near the monitoring stations, it's easy to spot the path vessels take through the ice to get to the Voisey's Bay nickel mine site. Laing said their research can assist those types of activities as well.

In one recent case SmartICE was able to help a ship that got stuck.

"What we did was take the smart komatik, which is being pulled by Joey here, and measured the ice thickness for them," Laing recounted.

"They were able to use this to forecast some decisions on how to move through the ice."

"Gotta get 'em in there," added Angnatok. 

Public portal in the works

Right now the information is available to people in the community, but Laing said there's movement afoot to widen the audience.

There is a website in the works, with a portal that will incorporate all the SmartICE information.

"We're still finalizing the development of that," Laing said.

"Hopefully sometime soon."

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