Sea ice forecasting is a red-hot business opportunity, given the increasing number of ships carrying oil, gas, minerals and other cargo through Arctic waters.

A global observation network currently helps guide ships through these treacherous areas, using terminals staked in the ice that send data to satellites. But it’s an imperfect system marked by technical limitations, says Andrea Scott, an assistant professor of systems design engineering at the University of Waterloo.

“Ice thickness is a very big deal for shipping,” Scott says, but it can vary dramatically over short distances. While today’s technology can make general predictions about ice thickness over broad areas, it can’t detect these highly localized variations, making it difficult for shippers to adjust their routes in time to avoid problems.

“There’s such a range [in ice thickness], so the ship can get stuck,” Scott says. “If the ship gets stuck in the ice, it’s really expensive to get it out.”

Scott’s post-doctoral research, in partnership with UW’s Water Institute, has led her to work with the Communitech DATA.BASE program, in which academic and industry experts are working on new applications for data collected by small, low-orbit satellites. The goal of DATA.BASE is to spur creation of a commercial ecosystem around this data.

“In shipping you want to know what the ice is going to be like tomorrow, not next week,” says Scott, who thinks the solution might lie in mounting thickness monitors to the ships themselves. This would create a hypothetical field of ice thickness in the area around a moving vessel, enabling its crew to find the thinnest ice through which to travel.

“Maybe you can put a terminal on the ship; have a camera mounted on the ship,” she says. “The camera can tell the boat what the ice thickness is, and then use the terminal to transmit the ice thickness back to the forecasting model.” Ice thickness forecasters could “optimize what they know with the information that is coming in, and then use that to get a better idea of what the ice state is going to be downstream of the ship,” she says.

By incorporating satellites, big data and shipping, Scott’s idea was perfect for the DATA.BASE project. Her goal is to develop the new terminal and its data-crunching code.

Scott’s project will use yearly ice thickness data to create a model to forecast average patterns. She will then run simulations at UW. After that, Scott’s team will work alongside DATA.BASE partner exactEarth, using their prototypes to add sensors and cameras to ships, and connect these sensors with the Global Sensor Network, a series of terminals that send climate information to satellites.

“It’s still new research; no one really knows a lot about ice thickness data,” Scott says of her passion for sailing into this uncharted research territory.

About The Author

Kayleigh Platz

Kayleigh Platz is a storyteller and community relations manager for Communitech. Born, raised and schooled in Waterloo Region, she holds two degrees from the University of Waterloo and is interested in new media, social networks and making connections.