NL·Thin Ice

A bird's-eye view on Labrador climate change, as drones inform on ice

Rigolet's Eldred Allen and his drone company Bird's Eye Inc. are keeping tabs on changing ice conditions, and helping keep people safe.
A chunk of sea ice is shown floating in the ocean.
Sea ice moves into the Labrador coast each fall, but it was five weeks later than normal for the 2020-21 season. (Eldred Allen/Bird's Eye Inc.)

From the ground, an ice highway near Rigolet looked as it always did to Eldred Allen: newly frozen over, with excited snowmobilers heading over it to their cabins, or on hunting and fishing trips.

He launched his drone to capture that criss-crossing — and found a different story.

"Once I got the drone up in the air, about 200 to 300 feet, you could see that the entire length of the ice was riddled with open holes of open water," Allen said.

That sight, several years ago, has stuck with Allen as a vivid example of what drones reveal about sea ice, a landscape he and everyone in Rigolet, the southernmost Inuit community in Canada, know intimately. Allen has owned and operated the drone company Bird's Eye Inc. since 2016, and he's developed a unexpected niche beyond technical contracts and services: documenting climate change.

"It's affecting our lives and our daily activities constantly. And, you know, other people might not realize that climate change is having such a drastic impact, when you can't be here to see it, and can't experience it and feel it the way that we do, " Allen said.

"But if the images and the video and the photos that we capture is able to help people get a better sense of what we're going through, and the impact that it is having, then, you know — that's something that's important."

Eldred Allen owns and operates Bird's Eye Inc., a drone company based in Rigolet, Labrador. (Submitted by Eldred Allen)

Thanks to strong ocean currents and tides, Rigolet is the only community in Nunatsiavut that has open water year-round, although sea ice does set in each winter, and occupies huge cultural importance.

Outsiders may not feel the same sharp sense of limitation and loss that locals do when they see ice thinning and breaking, Allen said, but he hopes his footage gives a window into a remote world now at the forefront of global change.

According to a recent study, winters in Nunatsiavut have warmed on average 1.5 C degrees over the course of the three decades between 1987 and 2016, and is on track to add another 2 or 3 C to that by 2050, unless drastic greenhouse gas mitigation measures come into force.

CBC News hired Bird's Eye Inc. as part of coverage of an extraordinary lack of sea ice along Labrador's coast: the 2020-21 season has seen the ice move in about five weeks later than normal, and been far more fragile — one measurement in March in Makkovik was 15 centimetres thick, when it should've been a metre.

The community of Rigolet, seen from the ice. (Eldred Allen/Bird's Eye Inc)

Aerial adaptation

While shining a light on the rapid and extraordinary climate changes along Labrador's northern coast is one thing, Allen is also tapping his drone expertise for more immediate and practical ends.

"We've been trying to utilize it to inform community members who are wanting to travel on the sea ice to help them make more informed decisions," he said.

In spring, when the ice begins to melt, Allen flies his drone from the safety of the shore every few days and posts the results to social media to help people plan travel without venturing onto it themselves. Such shots are particularly important as climate change erodes the ability of traditional knowledge and routes to keep people safe.

"That's something that we see as a very important tool and a very important task as well, and something that we look to to continue to do," Allen said.

Climate change is also affecting cultural sites, Allen said, and part of his work has become capturing digital images and generating 3D models of them for preservation purposes.

"We never foresaw being able to utilize our drones to document change and climate change, and we're really seeing the value in that now," Allen said.

WATCH | Eldred Allen's drone footage of thin ice

Eldred Allen takes drone footage of thin sea ice in northern Labrador.

2 years ago
Duration 1:40
Rigolet's Eldred Allen and his drone company Bird's Eye Inc. are keeping tabs on changing ice conditions, and helping keep people safe.

As Allen collects video, occasionally he comes across startling sights that drive home aspects of his changing world. One time, he filmed a fat seal, sunbathing atop the ice and squirming in apparent glee — that is, until the ice gave way beneath and it slipped under the water's black surface.

On one level, the video has comic timing — "I kind of had a chuckle," said Allen — along with the knowledge the seal would be fine, if perhaps not entirely pleased, with the sudden dunking. 

But there's also a sense of larger tragedy.

"There's that mental parallel you draw," said Allen.

"We're seeing the seal fall, break through the ice when it wasn't expecting it to.… That's what's unfortunately occurring with people now mid-winter, when they travel to locations where they think it might be safe. And it could be snow-covered, or the ice is just not as thick as they expected it to be, and they fall through unexpectedly."

Sea ice breaks apart near Rigolet, Labrador, a region that saw ice move in about five weeks later than normal this year. (Eldred Allen/Bird's Eye Inc.)

Allen also has a flourishing artistic practice — some of his work is on display at the first-ever exhibit at Qaumajuq, the Inuit art centre unveiled in Winnipeg at the end of March — and in his images of the thinning ice, he also sees a sense of abstract beauty.

"Just to get the drone up and see how those ice pans move out in the ocean, and how they're, you know, pushed around by the tide, how they collide together and stuff … there's almost a dance to it."

Thin Ice is a special CBC series about the changing climate along Labrador's north coast, and the Indigenous-led responses arising from it. Read more in this series in the coming weeks.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador