Don’t freeze up: the Arctic Ice Watch campaign

Icebreaker Snow Dragon Arctic research
Drift ice in the middle of the Arctic Ocean as seen from the deck of icebreaker MV Xue Long (Snow Dragon). The Icebreaker, operated by the Polar Research Institute of China, is one of the Ice Watch participating ships. / Attribution Timo Palo (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)

Laura Nielsen for Frontier Scientists

Polar waters are unpredictable. The Antarctic rescue operation currently underway illustrates that fact thoroughly; the United States Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star is en route to rescue the Russian research ship Akademik Shokalskiy and the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long which earlier came to the aid of the beleaguered Russian ship. The Xue Long’s helicopter retrieved 52 tourists, scientists and journalists and transferred them to the non-ice-bound Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis, but the Akademik Shokalskiy and Xue Long, including both ships’ crews, are currently trapped in sea ice in Antarctica’s Commonwealth Bay.

USCG Vice Admiral Paul F. Zukunft called Antarctic waters “One of the most remote and harsh environments on the face of the globe,” and told the Associated Press: “Our highest priority is safety of life at sea, which is why we are assisting in breaking a navigational path for both of these vessels.”

Arctic Ice Watch

Circle the globe to the Arctic, where navigating icy waters also proves a challenge for seafaring vessels. Summer Arctic sea ice extent is in decline, leading to increasing resource exploration and extraction as well as more ships taking advantage of northern routes. There are an increasing number of vessels navigating Arctic waters. Winter cold brings back sea ice cover, which presents many of the same challenges to voyagers and researchers it has always posed. Using technology and sharing information helps ocean-goers understand more about Arctic waters, and avoid getting trapped in ice.

ICESCAPE melt ponds Arctic sea ice
ICESCAPE scientists atop sea ice and melt ponds in the Chukchi Sea. Impacts of Climate change on the Eco-Systems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment, or ICESCPE Mission, is a multi-year NASA shipborne project in the Arctic. / Courtesy NASA Earth Observatory

Enter Ice Watch, a campaign begun in the summer of 2012 to collect, organize, and share shipborne sea ice observation data. Ice Watch was founded by researchers at the International Arctic Research Center (IARC) of University of Alaska Fairbanks. It offers free open source software developed by IARC’s Geographic Information Network of Alaska (GINA) in collaboration with the Climate and Cryosphere Arctic Sea Ice Working Group. The software offered is the Arctic Shipborne Sea Ice Standardization Tool (ASSIST).


ASSIST software helps ships record their route, meteorological information, data on sea ice conditions, ice concentration, and ice type. It takes into account first-year (young and thin) ice versus multi-year ice (old thick ice that has survived at least one summer without melting). It also records Arctic specific conditions: ice algae, sediment trapped in ice, and surface melt conditions (such as the ponds which form atop sea ice). ASSIST shipborne observations can be transmitted to the Ice Watch team, and used to create an interactive map available in near-real-time to ships navigating Arctic waters. On a simple but useful level, that data helps ships avoid getting stuck in ice. Digging deeper, it helps monitor the complexities of Arctic sea ice. Just like with snow melt, human-collected observations can provide data not available through even high-resolution satellite imagery. Ice Watch gives scientists access to data that will help them model Arctic waters and understand the processes that guide Arctic climate.

Remember, the Arctic has widespread influence: if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, Arctic conditions may be impacting you right now.

With ASSIST’s standardized observational data, the Ice Watch team can craft valuable sea ice maps. They can also collect historical data gathered and archived by past cruises and ‘rescue’ it, changing it into the standardized format useful to modern-day users. Ships from widespread origins are participating in gathering Arctic data. As the data collection grows, the freely-available archive can be downloaded in multiple useful formats and analyzed. This is international collaboration and communication.

Visit the IARC Ice Watch data repository where you can access current and archived ice observations, including visualized near-real-time conditions as well as historic sea ice data.

Laura Nielsen 2014

Frontier Scientists: presenting scientific discovery in the Arctic and beyond

  • ‘Ice Watch: ASSIST Data Network’ International Arctic Research Center (July19 2013)
  • ‘Participating Ships’ Ice Watch: ASSIST Data Network, International Arctic Research Center (June13 2013)
  • ‘U.S. icebreaker to rescue 2 ships in Antarctica’ Rod McGuirk, Associated Press (January5 2014)