Safely Navigating on the Ice

Two AWI researchers’ award-winning idea could make navigating in the Arctic easier
[18. January 2021] 

Driving across ice in a truck or snowcat is a dangerous undertaking. Especially since climate change means that the ice conditions are always unpredictable. But in the Arctic, it’s often the only way to reach your destination. With a new navigation system, known as “TransIce Nav”, Alexandra Zuhr and Tabea Rettelbach want to make journeys like this much safer in future. The two Potsdam-based researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), took the first prize in the prestigious European “Copernicus Masters” competition, in the category “Transport”.

Life in the Arctic has always been rough. But in recent years, climate change has presented new challenges for the ca. five million people living in the Far North. Many communities there rely on transport from the south: food, timber, fuel, etc. – it’s all delivered by trucks, travelling over frozen rivers and stretches of sea. “In order to be able to use these routes safely, however, the ice has to be at least 30 centimetres thick,” explains Alexandra Zuhr. But the season in which this is the case is constantly growing shorter. Once lasting nearly 200 days per year, over the last four decades it’s dwindled to roughly half that number. Many communities suffer diesel shortages because the access roads can’t be opened in time. Further, many of them are difficult to reach by boat, and helicopter transport is often prohibitively expensive, if possible at all.

But heavy trucks aren’t the only ones that have to contend with the perils of the unstable ice. For snowcats, too, journeys across the frozen cover of the ocean and seas are becoming increasingly dangerous. This applies equally to the indigenous populations on hunting expeditions, and to the growing number of people travelling in the Arctic as tourists or for scientific purposes. Time and time again, snowcats using standard routes break through the ice, causing accidents that can easily be fatal. “Therefore, with our new TransIce Nav system, the goal is to provide information that allows people to safely navigate on the ice,” Tabea Rettelbach explains. “Because doing so can save lives.”

The researcher is an expert on remote sensing and, as such, also on the technical principles involved in such systems. Her colleague Alexandra Zuhr, on the other hand, uses core samples from the Greenland ice to reconstruct the past climate. Accordingly, she knows about the pitfalls of navigating on frozen surfaces from personal experience. Together, the two researchers developed the idea for TransIce Nav and submitted it to the “Copernicus Masters” competition  ( – a ‘European Cup’ of sorts for creative minds who want to use Earth observation data to address global challenges. The competition is organised by Copernicus, the European Union’s Earth observation programme. In 2020, the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure created a special category for solutions that tackle transport problems. And it was in this category that the two AWI doctoral candidates’ proposal took home top honours.

“What we want to develop is a type of Google Maps for the ice,” says Alexandra Zuhr. “You enter your starting point and destination, and it shows you the optimal route.” In other words, the one that takes you where you want to go as safely and quickly as possible.

Earth observation satellites from the Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 series provide the necessary data. The former group utilise radar, which means they can provide year-round information on the ice extent and thickness. In contrast, the latter employ optical observations of the Earth and therefore deliver interesting information especially in the brighter summer months. The satellites’ input is supplemented by processed data from the Copernicus Marine Service, which uses satellite-based measurements of the ice conditions, sea temperature and wind to predict future ice conditions. According to Zuhr: “Consequently, TransIce Nav will allow us to look ahead roughly five to seven days into the future.”

Those using the system receive comprehensive maps, which they can use to plan trips in advance on their home computers. “That’s an important aspect, since, once underway, they usually won’t have Internet access,” the researcher adds. But even after setting off, Arctic travellers aren’t on their own. The system’s accompanying smartphone app guides travellers through the white frontier using GPS – and warns them when they’re approaching unstable areas, the ice edge or other hazards. Since the satellite data has a resolution of 50 to 100 metres, TransIce Nav can’t detect small cracks in the ice. However, the system does have a built-in safety buffer. For example, it automatically plots detours to avoid regions that could become unstable due to ocean currents. “Nevertheless, anyone using it should have some knowledge of the local landscape,” says Alexandra Zuhr.

There are plenty of potential customers – from the indigenous population to tourism companies, not to mention firms from the oil, gas and mining industry operating in the Arctic. The two researchers have estimated the overall market potential of their idea to be 800 million euros, and with their current business model, ca. 400 million euros could be achieved. “But these figures could easily increase due to climate change,” says Rettelbach. Although there are already other systems on the market that facilitate ice navigation, they are mainly intended for ships and therefore focus on finding ice-free waters. Anyone wanting to cross sea ice would be better served by TransIce Nav.

As such, the two researchers can easily imagine putting their prize-winning idea into practice. But if they do, the 5,000 euros in prize money from the competition won’t be enough. According to their calculations, in the first year the two inventors of TransIce would need between 200,000 and 400,000 euros of start-up capital to cover the hardware, IT and personnel costs. But, armed with this seed money, the system could be up and running within a year at the latest. And ideally, it could also save lives.



Tabea Rettelbach
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