Quirks & Quarks

SmartICE: Supporting Inuit knowledge of the landscape with technology

Technology for sensing ice thickness helps with judgements about whether hunting or travel is safe

Technology for sensing ice thickness helps with judgements about whether hunting or travel is safe

A Smart buoy being deployed. The device is placed in a hole in the ice and a transmitter sends reports on ice thickness to the local community (SmartICE)

Originally published on March 14, 2020.

This is the first in a series of Quirks & Quarks stories on how science and technology are working in regions and communities across Canada facing unique challenges of climate change. 

An innovative program called SmartICE is putting new technology in the hands of people in the North to reinforce their traditional knowledge of sea ice in the face of unpredictable changes in conditions.

Climate change is transforming environments around the world, but nowhere faster than in Canada's North, which is creating new stresses and dangers for northern peoples. 

Sea ice is vital to life in the North. Ice is present around many northern communities for anywhere from six to nine months a year, and is an important part of the landscape. It connects communities and people and gives them access to resources.

"It's our highway to get to our food, we need safe sea ice for the people to travel the land to go hunt, seal rabbit, partridges," Rex Howell, a resident of Nain in Labrador told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. Howell is the northern production lead for the SmartICE project working in Nain.

As temperature warm in the North, the ice is becoming less predictable and the deep knowledge Northern people have of its behaviour is becoming less reliable. Inuit learn to read the ice — to estimate ice thickness, strength and snow cover — through hard-won experience that is passed down through generations. 

Unfortunately the traditional means of evaluating how safe the ice is are not working as well in changing conditions, according to Professor Trevor Bell, a geographer at Memorial University in Newfoundland and the leader of the SmartICE program. 

The sled-mounted Smart qamutik can read ice thickness in real time (SmartICE)

"Some of the signs that they've used to indicate safe travel are visible from the surface but they are not able to obviously see under the ice and realize that warmer ocean water [and] stronger ocean currents are literally eroding and thinning the ice from underneath," said Bell.

According to Andrew Arreak, SmartICE operations lead in Pond Inlet, on Baffin Island in Nunavut, this has had a serious impact on the people in his community. People are reluctant to go onto the ice, as the risk of falling through or losing a snowmobile increases. He said that in a survey conducted in his community, "half of the people who were surveyed couldn't get their usual hunting or travel routes." 

"You're in extreme, extreme environments and a wrong decision can mean life or death," said Bell. 

Bell and his team consulted with Inuit communities and authorities about what kind of technological help might be useful to reduce these dangers. "One of the key things that they were looking to understand was ice thickness. So we worked with some scientists to essentially establish both a stationary sensor and a mobile sensor that will record the sea ice thickness and communicate that back to the community," said Bell.

SmartICE project leader Trevor Bell conducts field tests near Pond Inlet, on Baffin Island (SmartICE 2016)

The stationary sensor is a long tubelike device about four meters high called a "smart buoy." It's lowered through a hole drilled in the ice so that its bottom is in the water, the middle portion is in the ice and snow and the top part is exposed. It has a GPS and transmitter and the device can measure ice thickness and send reports to local community offices where a map of ice thickness can be constructed for distribution within the community.

The mobile sensor, known as a "smart qamutik," is a package that rides on a sled towed behind a snowmobile. As the operator drives over the ice the sensors in the sled can provide information on ice thickness where it has travelled.

Again, the focus is on supporting the needs of the communities, said Arreak. "I attend community meetings first, for hunters and trappers, or the the council or even talking to others. I try and get their feedback of where they would like me to go. So this is not mainly up to me where I would like to go. I ask the community first."

That focus on the local communities is a vital value for Bell. SmartICE is a technical support to the accumulated knowledge of the environment that people have built up over generations, not a substitute in any way.  It's also why the organization is making an effort to do much of the manufacturing and maintenance of their devices in Northern communities, including a production facility in Nain.

"No matter what part of the world and what Indigenous peoples that are being impacted by climate change, they'll all tell you that their traditional knowledge is what is the ultimate characteristic that they have that will help them adapt to climate change," said Bell. "Augmenting that with other information, whether it's satellite imagery, whether it's technology that tells them ice thickness, I think adds to that, but really we need to strengthen that traditional knowledge."

Produced and written by Jim Lebans