You would think Northerners know ice. Well, they do, and have long navigated over it during hunting, fishing, or other cultural and social activities. But in recent years, thinning ice has made ice travel treacherous, and even traditional routes long used by Inuit and Northern communities are no longer always safe. People with vast experience on the ice have suffered fatal accidents. Warmer winters and unpredictable ice make Arctic communities even more isolated by reducing accessibility to land and ice for harvesting and cultural practices. Following an extremely warm winter in 2010, a survey of residents in Nain (Nunatsiavut), indicated that 75% of them were unable to predict ice conditions. The survey also found that one out of every 12 people surveyed had fallen through sea ice the previous winter.
As we sat in a chilly room during the 2018 Nunavut Trade Show & Conference, held at the Arctic Winter Games Complex in Iqaluit, we learned about SmartICE, a project to help communities better gauge the ice thickness and travel conditions. With a foosball table on our right and kids’ drawings on our left, we listened to SmartICE Founder and Memorial University professor Trevor Bell and Inuk Pitseolak Pfeifer describe SmartICE, which stands for Sea-ice Monitoring and Real-Time Information for Coastal Environments. SmartICE is an integrated, near real-time monitoring and information system to help Northerners adapt to the rapidly changing sea-ice conditions in Arctic Canada. The system improves predictability for travel conditions on ice, using local Inuit knowledge and skills and expanding employment and social development opportunities. SmartICE shared the prestigious 2016 Arctic Inspiration Prize and the United Nations 2017 Momentum for Change Award.
How does it work? Well, it was fitting that Trevor and Pitseolak presented SmartICE during the Conference session on Thriving Arctic Communities: Technology, Entrepreneurship, Social Innovation, because the project developed an innovative model to address both technical and social issues. SmartICE uses a network of stationary and mobile sensors administering real-time measurements of sea ice thickness. Pole-like sensors embedded in the ice provide information on ice and snow thickness that reduces risks and supports safe travel decision-making. More data are gathered from a traditional sled or “qamutik” fitted out with sensors pulled behind snowmobiles that travel along community trails. Primarily designed to support ice-travel safety, SmartICE also supports winter harvesting programs, search-and-rescue operations, ecosystem monitoring, and sea-ice technology validation.
SmartICE is also a social enterprise, helping to train and employ Inuit youth to work on the technology as producers, operators, and technicians. Many partners helped fund and resource the work as well, and the project is a good example of intercommunity collaboration supporting sustainable resource development of communities and industries. So far, SmartICE has expanded from two pilots to twelve other communities in 2018/2019. Communities in Alaska and Greenland have also contacted SmartICE about their services.
So, go check out the project at www.smartice.org and follow their progress. We applaud the innovation and pragmatic, community-based approach to helping Northern communities adapt to a changing environment. Good luck, SmartICE, and travel safely.