Nick Walker from eOsphere Limited and Lauri Seitsonen from VTT were invited onboard the Coast Guard’s icebreaking vessel, KV Svalbard, for a mission which left from Longyearbyen, Svalbard on 9 February 2016, travelled north into the sea ice, ultimately reaching a latitude of 82 degrees and 20 minutes, before returning to Longyearbyen on 16 February.
The aim was to demonstrate a system that integrates satellite derived ice information from different sources and delivers these products where they are needed, onboard vessels in the high Arctic where communication bandwidth is limited and expensive. Several of the most useful ice products were derived from ESA’s Sentinel-1 satellite radar imaging sensor, which allows sea-ice to be monitored even during the dark Arctic winter and through clouds, fog or snow. The system has been developed as a part of the POLAR ICE project, which is supported by the European Commission and includes partners from several European countries as well as Canada.
The demonstration highlighted the importance of the timeliness of getting the data out to vessels in these conditions. Sea ice is constantly moving because of winds, currents and tides. So the position of the ice might have changed substantially from that shown in a product that has taken several hours to arrive. The KV Svalbard encountered an example of this when tidal forces caused the gaps between the ice, which were clearly visible in a Sentinel-1 image in the morning, to have closed by the time a second image arrived later in the day. This “accordion” effect, where the ice opens and closes according to the lunar tidal cycles, was first described by the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen over a century ago.
One way to obtain up-to-date information is to use ice forecasts, which of course, also provide information about the future. A popular product with the crew’s navigators was the ice forecast provided by the Danish Meteorological Institute, which includes information about ice concentration, thickness and drift. Robin Jensen, one of the KV Svalbard’s navigators explained “what we really like is a good forecast model with the drift and thickness of ice compared with up to date or real time pictures, because it’s really important for us to see how it looks like right now. Sometimes we have to go quite far to the east just to get a little bit north. There is a saying don’t work against ice.”
Nick Walker, the coordinator of the POLAR ICE project said “Lauri and I are really grateful to the KV Svalbard’s crew for making us so welcome onboard. We learnt a huge amount about really using ice information in action in the Arctic which is a completely different experience to being back in our offices. The whole issue of the timeliness of the data became really important, with the ship’s navigators often asking us “has a new satellite image arrived yet”, which also demonstrated to us how keen they were to see this data.”