Thursday January 04, 2018

As ice thins underfoot, technology is combining with traditional Inuit knowledge to save lives

The SmartICE Project integrates traditional knowledge with advanced technology to provide insights into sea-ice thickness and local ice conditions, in near real-time.

The SmartICE Project integrates traditional knowledge with advanced technology to provide insights into sea-ice thickness and local ice conditions, in near real-time. (Trevor Bell/Submitted)

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Communities in northern Canada are finding themselves on thin ice — but they're fighting back.

Sea ice has traditionally been a hub of activity in the winter, both as a hunting ground, and a highway. But due to a changing climate, that land-fast ice — which covers waters adjacent to coastal communities and can stretch up to 50 kilometres from the shore — is increasingly less solid and less long-lasting.

The change is hitting hunting, causing food insecurity, and leading to an increase in people falling through the ice.

But those communities are adapting; with an innovative tool called SmartICE that blends modern technology and traditional Indigenous knowledge to beat the climate challenge.

'You learn the best from the science with which you can see the world with one eye, and the best of the Indigenous knowledge through which you can see the world with the other eye.' - Professor Glen Aikenhead

It works by providing real-time information to people who are traveling on the ice, saving lives in the process.

Sensors are frozen into the ice at the beginning of the season. They are able to measure both the ice's thickness and the depth of snow resting on top of it, and relay that back to the community via satellite.

The company, SmartICE has also hired Inuit people who live in affected areas, affixing sensors to the undersides of their sleds that can measure the ice as they cross community trails.

SmartICE project Trevor Bell

The company, SmartICE, outfits the sleds of community members with sensors to gather extra information. (Trevor Bell/Submitted)

All of this information is collated on a digital-hazard map, which employees print off regularly for those members of the community who cannot access it online.

Memorial University research professor Trevor Bell is the founder and director of SmartICE. He tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti that he wants these community workers to take a more hands-on approach in compiling these maps, using their own local and traditional knowledge to inform them.

He says Indigenous communities can tell the condition of the ice based on its surface texture, or even its sound.

"They listen to the ice and can tell how it is changing," he says.

"In fact some communities have asked us to put microphones on our stationary sensors so that they can listen to te ice from their communities, and in that way they can tell what the ice is doing."

'They listen to the ice and can tell how it is changing' - Trevor Bell

This melding of knowledge is welcomed by Glen Aikenhead, a professor emeritus with the Aboriginal Education Research Centre at the University of Saskatchewan.

SmartICE monitoring station

One of the SmartICE monitoring stations near Nain, Newfoundland and Labrador. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

Aikenhead tells Tremonti that while modern science produces generalized rules that can be applied universally, Inuit knowledge is place-based, and deeply involved with respecting your environment, but adapting to survive in it.

Exploring one enhances the other, he says.

"It's what an elder called 'two-eyed seeing.'" Aitkenhead explains.

"You learn the best from the science with which you can see the world with one eye, and the best of the Indigenous knowledge through which you can see the world with the other eye."

Listen to the full conversation — in which Anna Maria Tremonti also speaks with Shirley Tagalik, author of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit: What Inuit Have Always Known to Be True — near the top of this post.


This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal and Willow Smith.