Cloud-based satellite imagery guides ships through icy waters

Polar View
Polar View – The icebergs in satellite imagery are pink.

The cloud computing-based technology used to guide US Coast Guard cutter Maple through the ice-ridden Northwest Passage exclusively with satellite imagery could be used more in future ice seasons.

Serving as “a ship of opportunity” to conduct scientific research in support of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the 60-metre-long seagoing buoy tender Maple successfully retraced the historic journey from Sitka, Alaska, through the Northwest Passage to the Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore, Maryland.

Scientists at the US Coast Guard International Ice Patrol (IIP) used iceberg detection software available on the European Space Agency’s online Polar Thematic Exploitation Platform (Polar TEP) to access satellite data to detect icebergs and analyse their densities and trajectories.

“This cloud approach will provide a bridge to the Patrol’s future by improving our ability to monitor iceberg hazards from space and continue to protect the maritime community,” said IIP Chief Scientist Michael Hicks.

“This experience using the Polar TEP cloud-based technology opens the door for future evaluations of a more robust version of the iceberg detection and iceberg trajectory processors.

“Cloud-based technology such as that used by Polar TEP is expected to be an important tool for handling the ever-growing amount of data coming from space.”

Traditionally, the IIP collects ice conditions information in the North Atlantic Ocean from air surveillance flights and ships operating in or passing through the area. The iceberg data is fed into a computer model at the IIP Operations Centre, together with ocean current and wind data, where a model predicts the drift of the icebergs and predicted locations.

But the Maple journey in July and August enabled the IIP to use data from the Copernicus Sentinel-1 satellite mission to create charts showing the risk of encountering icebergs after exiting from the Northwest Passage and during transit through Baffin Bay, Davis Strait and Labrador Sea.

“Each flight lasts seven to nine hours to cover an expanse of water of 75,000 square kilometres or more,” explains David Arthurs of PolarView.

“But satellites offer an additional wide view within the overall 1.3 million-square-kilometre service area. Radar satellites are extremely good at detecting sea ice and icebergs, even in clouds or darkness.

“This task has just been made much quicker and easier through our new platform, which has all the major data assembly and processing on a single online platform. Its real value is in shrinking the gap between the satellites in orbit and the end users.

“Speed is very important: we aim to get these results into the hands of the Ice Patrol as swiftly as possible – within a handful of hours at most.”

Sentinel-1 is equipped with radar that can detect icebergs through cloud cover, a capability beneficial in the IIP’s operating area.

Sentinel-1 can also distinguish between the thinner, more navigable first-year ice and the hazardous, much thicker multi-year ice to help assure safe year-round navigation in ice-covered Arctic and sub-Arctic zones.

The radar images are particularly suited to generating high-resolution ice charts, monitoring icebergs and forecasting ice conditions.

Ice season runs from January until July 31.

Baird Maritime

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