Navigating industry through icy waters

- St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador

Iceberg database project makes big waves

Photo by Shane McKay, NRC

With the rapid growth of oil and gas development off Canada's east coast, and as economic and political interests in the Arctic increase, the ability for seagoing vessels and offshore structures to operate safely in Canadian waters remains of critical importance. The use of predictive strategies continues to be a crucial tool in avoiding collisions and protecting existing structures in waterways saturated with icebergs, ice build-up and other formidable obstacles.

To avoid damaging vessels that travel these waters, boat captains and their navigators must rely on whatever data is available on iceberg position, density, shape and size, which historically has been scattered across multiple, and often proprietary, databases. And despite hundreds of years of sailing through these regions, the ability to predict sea conditions with certainty has remained an ongoing challenge.

In response, and to help minimize the risk to people, property and the environment, the National Research Council (NRC) developed a series of advanced databases to capture and collect the essential data on iceberg sightings and locations. Funded by Natural Resources Canada’s (NRCan) Program of Energy Research and Development (PERD), these databases have since become a definitive source for iceberg information in Canada’s North Atlantic waters.

Back at the dock

In the early days on the Grand Banks, offshore regulators, petroleum companies, universities and engineering firms all collected and managed their own iceberg data sets, little of which was ever shared. It was only in the mid-1990s that industry and regulators in eastern Canada began collating this data, as technology permitted.

Today, this continuing PERD and NRC-supported project compiles and packages iceberg information into three unique databases which capture distinct data on sightings, shape and management of icebergs. Comprised of over 400 years of visual and radar detected sightings, 2D/3D geometries and records of iceberg management operations from 1973 onwards, this combined data suite now serves as a vital tool for present-day operations in the Arctic waters.

"When working on east coast projects, I found the iceberg databases to be a key source of data on a number of topics," says Walt Spring, PhD., President of Bear Ice Technology. "The iceberg sighting and shape databases provide the information required for use in design and operations, while the iceberg management database provides data on towing capabilities in the planning of drilling rig disconnects."

Keeping current in troubled waters

In addition to becoming a primary source for iceberg tracking and positioning, the PERD-NRC databases also provide stakeholders with information on iceberg management, geometry and population. By offering an improved knowledge base of iceberg information that is freely available for uptake, the databases have formed a basis for more economical decision-making and improved human and environmental safety. The resulting reduction of uncertainty relating to iceberg and sea ice hazards now facilitates numerous operations along Canada’s east coast.

Researchers at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland are now using the PERD-NRC databases as a key source for iceberg shape data in the development of a new iceberg profiling system which will capture an iceberg's underwater geometry. "With the known iceberg shapes in the database, we are able to simulate the iceberg mapping process with autonomous underwater vehicles," says Mingxi Zhou, PhD. Candidate, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The PERD-NRC databases continue to be updated yearly with new data from navigators, end-users and other stakeholders to ensure the information is expanded, up-to-date, and relevant. The success of this NRC initiative is validated by rapid and ongoing stakeholder engagement and continued federal support. In recognizing the benefits these tools provide for the Canadian marine industry, NRC is a beacon for improving the safety and efficiency of marine operations in the North Atlantic.

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