SmartICE: Canadian Innovation Garners International Recognition

Photo showing geographer Trevor Bell checking a SmartICE sensor in Eclipse Sound, Nunavut. Photo credit: Trevor Bell

Trevor Bell checking a SmartICE sensor in Eclipse Sound

An especially warm winter in 2010 demonstrated to Canadians living outside the Arctic what Inuit have been observing for decades: that climate change is radically impacting Inuit Nunangat, their homeland in Canada. In Nunatsiavut, Labrador, rain fell for most of February, in stark contrast to the usual minus 20°C temperatures. This made coastal ice conditions treacherous, says Trevor Bell, a geography professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Thinner ice makes it more difficult for northern people to travel and harvest country food safely.

The Arctic region is warming twice as quickly as the rest of the planet, according to the national 2014 Canada in a Changing Climate assessment. The Government of Canada is currently updating Canada in a Changing Climate, the next national assessment of how Canada's climate is changing, the impacts of these changes and how we are adapting to reduce risk.

Improving ice safety in the arctic

In close consultation with the Nunatsiavut Government, Bell's team of sea-ice specialists has developed a safe and simple method to monitor and report sea-ice conditions. The system is called SmartICE, short for Sea-ice Monitoring and Real-Time Information for Coastal Environments, which Bell describes as "a climate change adaptation tool." The project operates in close partnership with communities and collaborates with the Canadian Ice Service. The system relies on a mix of sensors to transmit ice data and Inuit knowledge to enable safe travel over ice.

Information from the sensors (see Spotlight on Innovation) is combined with additional satellite data and local ice knowledge to create easy-to-use ice travel hazard maps. Because they use radar satellites, for example Canada's RADARSAT, which see through clouds and aren't reliant on the sun, maps can be created throughout the dark days of winter and in all weather conditions.

Once completed, the maps are posted online as guidelines for people planning to travel. They are also printed and displayed around communities. The maps identify travel hazard areas using a traffic-light colour system – green ("go"), orange ("go slow") and red ("no go").

Spotlight on Innovation

Battery-powered sensors sealed in floatable white plastic tubes are imbedded in ice in late November to be retrieved in late spring or early summer. Through satellites, these buoy sensors transmit data such as snow depth, ice thickness and temperature to a SmartICE data portal.

Photo of a SmartICE stationary buoy in the ice (right foreground) next to a manually operated snow-and-ice monitoring station (wooden stakes inserted in the snow) near Nain, Nunatsiavut. Photo credit: Trevor Bell

A SmartICE stationary buoy in the ice (right foreground) next to a manually operated snow-and-ice monitoring station near Nain

In addition, mobile sled-borne sensors dragged behind snowmobiles supplement the stationary units. They are called “SmartQAMUTIKs” after the Baffin Inuktitut word for ice sled. Depending on the complexity of local ice conditions and the extent of ice travel, a community might require five to ten buoy sensors and one or two mobile units for adequate monitoring – especially during the dangerous fall freeze-up and spring break-up periods.

Photo of researchers conducting a development trial by pulling the SmartQAMUTIK behind a snowmobile on the sea ice off Nain, Nunatsiavut. Photo credit: Trevor Bell

Development trials of the SmartQAMUTIK on the sea ice off Nain

The world is taking notice

The success of this monitoring system is sparking the attention of northern communities across the world and garnering recognition on the international stage. SmartICE won the 2017 United Nations ‘Momentum for Change' Climate Solutions Award and the 2016 Arctic Inspiration Prize.

Piloting in northern communities

Piloted in Nain, Nunatsiavut, and Pond Inlet, Nunavut, the monitoring system is operated by Inuit who live there; the same people who depend on coastal ice to access harvesting areas to feed their families, collect firewood (where available) to heat their homes, and maintain livelihoods and cultural practices.

After the unseasonably warm winter of 2010, the Nunatsiavut Government surveyed the community to quantify the warm winter's impacts. The survey revealed that one in 12 people had fallen through ice, two-thirds feared travel on ice, and half said they couldn't use their traditional hunting routes. Similar stories of rapid and unpredictable sea-ice changes are heard in communities across the Canadian North, and are often associated with increased travel risk, which can lead to serious injury or death.

Considerations for the future

“What's key is the unpredictability of changes in sea ice from one year to the next,” says Bell, who has studied Arctic landscapes and community adaptations for more than thirty years. “Traditional knowledge of the ice has become less consistent as conditions are more unpredictable and changes more rapid.”

Climate modellers suggest that Arctic winters will become much warmer, with sea ice forming later and breaking up earlier, although these changes will not necessarily be gradual. Extremely warm winters, much like the one experienced in Nunatsiavut in 2010, will likely occur more frequently. Their timing, however, is almost impossible to predict, which makes preparations and planning more challenging for northern communities.

Regional Perspective

Nunatsiavut is an Inuit regional government in northern Labrador, which is part of Newfoundland and Labrador. The government has authority over health, education, culture, language, justice and community matters. Its core principals include democracy and equality, preservation of Inuit culture and language, pursuit of a healthy society, a sustainable economy and the conservation of land, animals and plants in the region.

Nunatsiavut, which means “our beautiful land,” is the southernmost recognized Inuit territory in Canada. Its legislative capital is Hopedale and its administrative capital is Nain.

SmartICE Social Enterprise Empowering Inuit Youth

As part of the knowledge-to-action plan for their 2016 Arctic Inspiration Prize, SmartICE is to create a technology production centre in Nain, Nunatsiavut, to have Inuit youth assemble SmartICE sensors for distribution across the Arctic. SmartICE is working hard to make this a reality. With the prize money and funding from three levels of government, SmartICE is moving their SmartBUOY assembly out of the lab and into the hands of Inuit youth at its new Northern Production Centre in Fall of 2018.

“It's a big jump from university labs to a production facility in Nain,” says Trevor Bell, a geographer at Memorial University, whose team of researchers, engineers and community experts designed the SmartICE system. As a stepping stone, his team is working with Choices for Youth, a St. John's based youth-at-risk program, to redesign the assembly system to ensure sensors can be put together successfully by Inuit youth in the North.

The Northern Production Centre is based on a social enterprise business model to create positive community change. “SmartICE plans to harness the vast potential of Inuit youth and inspire them to embrace technology as a vehicle for economic development and wellbeing in their communities”, Bell says.

Advancing Climate Adaptation in Canada