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The ice chasers


Published: 27 Mar 2007

McGill prof and NRC/CIS team use computer model to track icebergs, tips and all

McGill prof and NRC/CIS team use computer model to track icebergs, tips and all

Nearly a century after crewman Frederick Fleet clanged the warning bell and yelled “Iceberg, straight ahead!” much too late from the crow’s nest of the doomed Titanic, navigation in so-called “Iceberg Alley” along the Grand Banks southeast of Newfoundland remains fraught with the constant threat of collision with a massive, drifting monolith of ice.

Now, a group of Canadian scientists, including Dr. Stuart Savage, McGill University emeritus professor of civil engineering and applied mechanics, has developed a unique computational model that reduces that threat by predicting where an iceberg is headed, buying precious time the crew of the Titanic never had.

“Even a chunk of ice that’s just five or six meters in diameter can do a lot of damage to a ship,” said Dr. Savage. “What we want to do is to prevent the probability of a collision or an oil spill before it’s even a danger.”

According to the NRC’s Institute for Ocean Technology, there have been more than 50 collisions with icebergs in the North Atlantic over the past 50 years, the most lethal of which was on Jan. 30, 1959, when 95 people died after a European vessel, the Hans Hedtof, struck a berg and sank on the return leg of its maiden voyage.

“Because we have the benefit of technology, the likelihood today of an iceberg collision has been significantly reduced,” Dr. Savage said. “Nevertheless they still happen.”

Dr. Savage, along with scientists from the National Research Council Canadian Hydraulics Centre (NRC-CHC) and the Canadian Ice Service (CIS), created a computerized forecasting model. It uses data on location and estimated size, as well as wind and sea conditions, to calculate the drift paths of the largest of the thousands of icebergs that drift into the North Atlantic every year from the massive glaciers of West Greenland. With that information, a ship’s captain can decide to change course to move out of harm’s way – or, to protect an oil rig, the iceberg itself can be sent off its collision course by being carefully towed in a different direction. The project was funded by Natural Resources Canada’s Program of Energy Research and Development (PERD).

The model runs on desktop computers and works by simulating existing conditions based on information gathered by iceberg observers, either at sea or on air patrol. It then uses equations based on the physics of motion to predict the trajectory of icebergs, which Savage noted can travel at a rate of a metre per second, depending on atmospheric and oceanographic conditions.

Testing in the Grand Banks has shown the Canadian computational model to be at least 30 percent more accurate than the existing forecasting model developed by the International Ice Patrol, a division of the U.S. Coast Guard established in the wake of the Titanic disaster. The organizations are working closely together to fully implement the new forecasting system, once it’s been tested in other regions of North America to validate results to date.

On the Web: National Research Council

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Contact: Michael Bourguignon
Organization: McGill University Relations Office
Office Phone: 514-398-8305
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