When the Arctic floe melts at spring, the Inuit have been going for thousands of years to its edges for fishing and finding game. Now, they are helped by the European Space Agency (ESA) and one of its satellites which provide accurate maps of ice and its extent. These maps are also useful for tour guides and to improve safety.
The ESA-backed Northern View Floe Edge Information Service provides regularly updated ice maps of inlets around Lancaster Sound, part of Baffin Bay within Canada's Nunavut Territory. Users can access maps from the Floe Edge service directly via a dedicated website, or else consult printouts posted for the public by the local Parks Canada Office.
"The maps are easy to interpret, and extremely useful," said David Qamaniq of the town of Pond Inlet in Lancaster Sound. "Ice edge conditions can change extremely rapidly, but the maps give an indication which areas are stable."
Here is an image generated by the Northern View Floe Edge product (Credit: Noetix Research).
Derived from satellite data, it shows ice conditions and extent. The red line represents the ice edge, while the blue line is the 30-year average of where the ice edge has been located historically. The blue blocks represent so-called fast ice, which is frozen stably to the shore and unaffected by tidal motion. The red blocks show moving ice and open water.
These maps are not only useful for the Inuit. They also help the tourists to plan their trips.
"On our trip last year to the Admiral Inlet, the Inuit guides were using the Floe Edge maps, so that was how I learned of the service," explained Thomas Lennartz of Toronto-based tour company Arctic Kingdom. "During the winter we use it to get an idea of what the upcoming season of trips to the ice edge will be like."
Finally, these maps are used to improve safety.
The satellite-based service supplements traditional methods of safely navigating the icescape, which seem to have become less reliable in recent years, possibly due to global warming. Back in June 1997 some 15 people from Pond Inlet became stranded on a detached 60 square metre ice floe and it was three days before they could be rescued.
"The safety aspect is a crucial part of the service, as during the busiest times each spring a large part of the population can be out on ice," explained John Bennett of Noetix, the company operating the Floe Edge service. "We use Synthetic Aperture Radar data from Envisat and Radarsat to provide a near-real time service."
The ESA doesn't say if it plans to extend this service to other areas.
Source: European Space Agency, via EurekAlert!, February 17, 2004