The Ice Man – an interview with the expedition ice expert

Published 22.10 in category Northern Passage - 2010

In this interview, Nick Hughes explains his role as ice consultant for the Northern Passage 2010 Expedition. Nick is Head of the Norwegian Ice Service, leading a staff that prepares ice charts of the Arctic and Antarctic and provides in-depth ice information for clients. Let’s hear what he has to say…

by Olav Grinde

“For the Northern Passage 2010 Expedition, I have been interpreting ice conditions based on satellite images. This involves converting available raw satellite data into maps that can be understood by the crew of the “Northern Passage”. In places where the ice was challenging, I have suggested navigational waypoints for the crew to follow through the ice, avoiding its greatest concentration,” says Nick Hughes.

The craft of forecasting
“To forecast ice conditions, you need information on where the ice is now, a good weather forecast including the expected wind conditions, as well as knowledge of factors such as ocean and tidal currents, and sea-water temperatures, that may affect the ice in a particular area.

“Børge was fortunate to obtain sponsorship from the Canadian Space Agency, which provided the expedition with a large number of images from “Radarsat-2”, a satellite that observes the Earth’s surface. This was vital both for planning the initial route and for following ice conditions near the “Northern Passage” during the two most critical months of the expedition. We are able to see the ice through clouds and at night,” explains the ice expert.

“Most of the time we used images with a medium resolution of 50–100 metres, which is ideal for seeing where there is ice over a wide area. When we wanted to follow the ice in more detail over a smaller area, for example the narrow Bellot Strait in the Northwest Passage, we could increase the resolution to up to 4 metres. In addition the Ice Service was able to provide coverage from the European Space Agency’s Envisat satellite, through our involvement in the MyOcean project, as well as publicly available images from NASA satellites.”

Concentrating on the route
“On most days we were able to obtain images for the relevant area. Fortunately we did not need to draw full ice charts, but could limit ourselves to where we knew the “Northern Passage” would be sailing.”

The standard charts released by the Norwegian Ice Service cover the area between Greenland and the Kara Sea, and from the Baltic Sea and up to the North Pole. These are issued on weeikdays, except on Norwegian public holidays. Recently the team has started production of weekly ice charts for the Antarctic, covering the area of the Antarctic Peninsula and the Weddell Sea. It must also be mentioned that the Norwegian Ice Service participates in international research projects.

The challenge of stealth ice
“One issue the radar satellites have with summer sea ice conditions is that melt water may form on the ice surface and make the ice almost invisible! I am considering suggesting a new official term for this: stealth ice. Sometimes I had to use visual images, between the cloud cover, from NASA satellites to check the status and position of ice that I knew to be in the area based on earlier images,” explains Nick.

It can be very difficult to predict the interplay between ice, wind and ocean currents. That is why ice expert Nick Hughes has worked closely with expedition meteorologist Marc De Keyser.

“Most times, sea ice will behave as expected, which is that unless there is a particular ocean or tidal current present it will be blown about by the winds. What can happen is that a large area of concentrated ice can require prolonged winds in a particular direction to overcome its initial inertia and get it moving. On the other hand, once the ice is moving, it can continue in that direction for some time even if the winds should die down or change direction.”

Read the full interview.

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