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IceMap™ GPR: Bringing Remote Communities Closer Together
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or many remote communities in the north, transportation is not something taken for granted. Large distances between towns, accessibility of roads and cost of transportation are real concerns faced by residents every day. While most of us in the ‘south’ think of winter driving as a nuisance, in the north, winter provides greater access to travel as rivers freeze and become temporary ice roads. In the Northwest Territories in Canada, ice roads form a vital transportation link for cheaper and more efficient shipping of goods. In Alaska along the Kuskokwim River, however, it’s more than just about saving money; it’s essential to their way of life.

gpr water bathymetry
Figure 1
Geographic location of the Kuskokwim River and surrounding communities

 
In winter, the 250-mile ice road along the Kuskokwim River connects over 15,000 people in several communities (Figure 1). In an area where resources are hard to come by, it’s all about the people: their ingenuity, cooperation and commitment to safety. It starts with those who watch the river ice, especially during times of winter freeze and spring thaw. They depend heavily on traditional knowledge; based on experience they know where strong currents may delay ice formation in the fall or accelerate ice breakup in the spring. These ice conditions are communicated to the communities up and down the river to ensure safe transportation. One of these communities is the Native Village of Napaimute, who recently enhanced their safety process by purchasing an IceMapTM GPR system for checking ice thickness. Rather than drilling holes at regular intervals for verification, IceMap™ provides a continuous measurement of ice thickness, so thin spots are immediately identified.

ice and snow thickness geo survey
Figure 2
Towing IceMap behind a truck, following a snow plow

 

“By combining our traditional knowledge with new technology, we are able to manage safe travel despite a changing climate that produces less ice,” said Mark Leary, Director of Development & Operations at the Native Village of Napaimute. Warmer weather is leading to shorter seasons and more variability in ice conditions. Heavy plowing equipment is used to keep the road clear of snow, but the plow can only go on once the ice is thick enough.
IceMapTM is used at the start of the season to make sure the conditions are safe to start plowing (Figure 2). Then it is used during the year to monitor the ice thickness and locate dangerous, thin spots of ice.

A stable, maintained ice road has wide ranging implications for social and economic reasons. Some examples include:

  • Hauling fuel, timber, building supplies
  • Moving small homes on a truck
  • Driving to a medical clinic in a nearby village
  • A high school basketball tournament, where participants and their families can affordably drive to the community, rather than the more expensive option of flying

“The ice is a living thing with a life of its own,” Mark said. “We watch it be born, we watch it mature all winter, and we watch it die in the spring.”

The benefits of the ice road reach beyond just that of the villagers as many government agencies also use this road.

GPR datagram Ice snow thickness
Figure 3
Data collected with IceMap. The blue line shows the thickness of the ice along a route.

 

IceMap data can be viewed in real-time (Figure 3), but it can also be downloaded, and an automated summary report generated. The report gives an overview of ice conditions, where ice calibrations (ground-truthing) were done, as well as highlighting areas of thin ice. For more graphics viewing, data can be overlaid onto Google Earth showing ice thickness along the path travelled.

“The Ice Map system has become a valuable asset in helping us adapt our winter travel strategies to keep people safe in the face of the changing climate”, says Mark. Their unofficial motto is: Working together so others may live.

Story courtesy of Native Village of Napaimute

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