Making sea-ice travel safer

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SmartICE Operator Jonah Keyookta driving the SmartQAMUTIK in Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut. © Dr. Trevor Bell, Founder/Director

SmartICE started as a small research project in coastal Labrador. Today, it is a growing northern social enterprise servicing sites across eastern Inuit Nunangat. With its unique employment of novel technology, social innovation, and Inuit knowledge, SmartICE is helping Inuit find resilience in the face of climate change, while ensuring its business solutions are consistent with societal values and directly benefit communities.

SmartICE’s story begins on the landfast sea-ice that hugs the Arctic coastline more than six months of the year. This ice is integral to the lives and livelihoods of Inuit living in Inuit Nunangat, serving as a vital travel link and harvesting platform.

In the past decade, climate change has seen the character of sea ice deteriorate. It is thinning from below, leaving treacherous conditions undetectable at the surface; it forms later in winter and breaks up earlier in spring; and it is more limited in extent.

Seeing the impacts of climate change on landfast sea-ice and the direct threat it posed to the safety and wellbeing of Inuit living in Nunatsiavut, a community research partnership began in 2013 to develop technology to help reduce the risk of sea-ice travel. And so SmartICE began.

SmartICE focuses on making sea-ice travel safer by providing near real-time information on ice conditions. We use both autonomous sensors (SmartBUOYs), set up anywhere on the ice, and operator-run sensors (SmartQAMUTIKs), towed by a snowmobile along trails, to measure and report ice thickness to the community. Where useful, we also use satellite imagery to make travel hazard maps of sea-ice conditions (for example: open water, moving ice, leads and cracks) around communities.

After its successful development and demonstration in two pilot communities (Nain, Nunatsiavut and Pond Inlet, Nunavut), and in response to increasing demand for its services from other communities, SmartICE established a not-for-profit social enterprise. Winning the Arctic Inspiration Prize in 2016 made this transformation possible — it was the game-changer that allowed SmartICE to shift its outlook from a community-university research project to a sea-ice monitoring and information service provider.

Dr. Trevor Bell and community members with deployed SmartBUOY in Pond Inlet, Nunavut. © Michael Schmidt

A social enterprise is not your typical business model. SmartICE selected it specifically for its social objectives and commitments. Rather than being driven by profit making for shareholders and owners, a social enterprise reinvests any surpluses in the business or in the community to maximize positive social change. It is also a business philosophy consistent with Inuit societal values such as caring for the environ­­ment (Avatittinnik Kamatsiarniq) and community (Pijitsirniq), while being innovative and resourceful (Qanuqtuurniq).

Over the past two years, SmartICE has been gradually expanding to new communities and discussing start-up opportunities with others. The company’s growth continues to be grounded in its founding principles. Foremost is the aim to augment—not replace—Inuit knowledge of sea ice, while also involving Inuit in all aspects of its operation and decision-making. To this end, each client community convenes a management group comprised of a cross-section of sea-ice users to advise SmartICE operators on when and where to survey and how to share the information.

SmartICE sees itself as a social innovator, creating solutions to challenges, while putting people and communities first. The SmartICE mission is to empower communities to adapt to changing climate while maximizing local benefits. This includes re-designing the SmartBUOY for assembly by trained Inuit youth in Nunatsiavut and setting up business services so they can be delivered and managed locally by Inuit operators.

Sustainability is a fundamental business objective of SmartICE. Given the intensifying nature of sea-ice change for the foreseeable future, we need to find ways to maintain our services in every community that needs us. Although some are able to pay, most communities cannot. So, we are approaching commercial clients who rely on safe sea-ice operations for their own profitability—for example, tourism and fisheries—to purchase our services and make the information freely available to nearby communities.

SmartICE welcomes inquiries from communities, companies and organizations interested in its services and social enterprise business model. An overview of its operations is available online at smartice.org.