Small icebergs can be highly dangerous to ships and others operating at sea. They’re stealthy, unpredictable and merciless, especially along Iceberg Alley — one of the most densely-packed concentrations of icebergs in the world.
Near the heart of Iceberg Alley, a treacherous stretch of sea in the Northwest Atlantic, lie the Grand Banks, a hotbed of natural resources and risk. Shipping routes, offshore oil operations and subsea cables congregating along this ice highway run the greatest risk of collision with icebergs, large and small.
Zhi Li, a PhD student at Memorial University, and his colleagues from the Autonomous Oceans Systems Laboratory (AOSL) in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, are working to improve the technologies used to detect, measure and communicate data about icebergs. Under the guidance of AOSL Director Dr. Ralf Bachmayer, in collaboration with principal investigator Dr. Brad deYoung in the Faculty of Science and supported by funding from multiple sources, AOSL has produced a number of innovations. Zhi’s research focuses on the control and navigation of the autonomous surface vehicle called the SeaCat. He designs, implements and tests the system used to safely operate the unmanned SeaCat around icebergs in harsh ocean environments. This technology enables operators to get closer to the ice for full inspection while maintaining their safety.
Icebergs in the North Atlantic are calved from the glaciers of West Greenland. Every year, a large number of icebergs, sometimes thousands, survives the two-to three-year long trip southward on the Labrador Current to the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador. People travel from far and wide to witness this annual ice parade. While these frosty mammoths may beguile tourists, seafarers and others operating in the North Atlantic know that beauty can be only skin deep. For many, an iceberg sighting means trouble, prompting professionals to hastily work together to prevent a close encounter at sea.
The prediction of an iceberg’s trajectory over a specific period is key in developing any mitigation strategy. Mathematical models use inputs, such as the berg’s underwater shape and the speed and direction of ocean currents nearby, to plot an iceberg’s projected path. To ensure the safety of drilling rigs and platforms, oil tankers, fishermen and shipping vessels, scientists and managers must acquire the most accurate data as quickly as possible to devise effective mitigation strategies for evacuation or trajectory intervention. Zhi says that current technologies used to locate, track and predict potential hazards in a timely manner have their shortcomings. Satellite images are typically not timely messengers of the whereabouts of large icebergs and are ineffective at locating smaller ones. Zhi maintains that while some bergs may also be small enough to escape radar or a ship’s watchkeeper’s eye, they can still pack a major punch.
The number of icebergs present in the waters of the western North Atlantic varies every year. However, the steady increase in industry presence, combined with the stealthy nature of smaller icebergs, has escalated the threat of collision. Autonomous technologies developed by the AOSL will provide industry with the opportunity to take a safer, up-close look at icebergs and the environment that surrounds them. Zhi’s research, along with that of other students in AOSL, will result in technologies that can obtain and relay more accurate data in real time. Analysts can then obtain detailed ice, weather, radar and ocean data in real time to enable them to make better-informed decisions under pressure in rapidly changing conditions.
The laboratory’s strength and success comes not only from the people invested in the research, but also from its access to advanced testing facilities. Memorial University provides the laboratory with access to resources such as a tow tank, ice simulator and the Holyrood Marine Base for testing the technologies as they’re developed. These on-campus resources enable quick results and turnaround for new improvements. What’s more, Memorial’s proximity to Iceberg Alley and nearby bays, where icebergs collect every year, provides AOSL with convenient access to field-study opportunities.
“In my 30+ year private sector career, mostly in ocean technology product development, I have never experienced the level of intensity that is present in this lab. These students have a real commitment to their field of study. They have chosen to pursue advanced degrees, and at some personal expense. Because of that intensity, I enjoy working with them on the research and development and I really admire their dedication.”
Only a small percentage of icebergs calved from the Western Greenland glaciers make it as far south as the 48th parallel. However, those that do often threaten the safety of ships and offshore companies operating in the North Atlantic, particularly icebergs measuring 50 metres or less. When it comes to icebergs, Zhi and his colleagues know there is only one option: avoid contact at all costs. That’s why the team at Memorial University’s Autonomous Ocean Systems Laboratory is working full steam ahead to develop the means for everyone to achieve safe passage.
- Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC),
- NSERC - Collaborative Research and Training Experience Program (CREATE),
- NSERC Canadian Field Robotics Network (NCFRN),
- Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA),
- Research and Development Corporation (RDC),
- Suncor Energy,
- Fugro Geosurveys,
- Teledyne Webb Research.