Communities use radar satellite to gauge ice breakup

In 1997, breakaway ice trapped some Pond Inlet high school students and sparked a massive search and rescue effort. Environment Canada wants to make sure that never happens again.


Nunatsiaq News

IQALUIT — Environment Canada and three communities in Nunavut will use satellite imagery to predict the safety of ice every spring.

The government selected Pond Inlet, Arctic Bay and Pangnirtung for a three-year pilot project that will use radar images from the Canadian RADARSAT satellite as well as traditional knowledge collected from Inuit elders about how the ice breaks up.

“They were surprisingly good at interpreting the RADARSAT images,” said Robert Gorman a consultant hired by Environment Canada to interview people in the three communities.

“You give most people down south a RADARSAT image and they won’t know what to do with it, but they were able to look at the dark spots and recognize that as weak ice.”

Gorman asked people in the communities to tell him about their hunting activities on the ice, how and when the ice breaks up, and what form they would like to see the forecasting service take.

The interviews were important, Gorman says, because he found an ice condition unique to Pangnirtung that Environment Canada hadn’t anticipated.

A smooth area on the ice looked fine from the satellite, but was actually weak, having been flooded with salt water. Gorman thinks the high tides around Pangnirtung force highly concentrated salt water though small holes in the ice.

Gorman also says he found out that people in the communities would like to have marine weather forecasts earlier. Usually the forecasts only come in the summer when there are ships, but he says hunters and travellers on the ice find the marine forecasts more relevant that the land-based weather forecasts.

The initiative started after a June 1997 incident at Pond Inlet in which a group of residents were trapped by an early fracture of ice, says Norman Michaud national marine focal point and project manager for Environment Canada.

It’s expected to cost $250,000 he says, but could mean huge savings on search and rescue expeditions.

“It’s kind of a case where an ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure,” Gorman says.

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