08 Jun

Ice Is Nice – but how nice is that ice really?

The Arctic season is due to start which means there will be plenty of opportunities to ‘land’ on sea-ice. The PTGA will have a range of web resources and articles on many topics directly related to guiding.

I would like to share my experiences of managing a sea-ice landing, highlighting some of the most significant risks and the actions I take to mitigate them. I also invite you to share your thoughts and experiences on this activity – learning from each other benefits everyone and strengthens our industry. The thoughts here are offered from my experience as an EL who regularly ice walks as a Field Safety person in charge of testing/drilling ice for vehicles and heavy machinery and researching National Program Standard Operating Procedures.

This article ONLY deals with sea ice (ice floes, fast ice, pack ice). It DOES NOT include, nor condone, iceberg landings. Icebergs are inherently unstable and can break up and roll unpredictably.

For field staff, judging ice strength is an inexact science. The trick is to have enough room in your judgment system that you are never even close to pushing the limit of what the ice can hold or what you load it with. My observations in the PTI are that we usually operate within safe limits, so the issue becomes more about the degree of variability in an area with ice cracks, rotten ice and melt pools and other environmental conditions at the time. These are the perils. The hazard, and crux issue, is how you put people on the ice and how the excursion is managed. As an EL, consider the fact that ice excursions have higher ‘real’ risks associated with them and much higher ‘perceived’ risk hence the novelty, thrill and excitement you get from staff and passengers. Your decision-making processes need an equally high level of accountability. The EL has executive control of landing decisions – and therefore responsibility.

There are three main ways we interact with sea ice; zodiac landing onto ice floes/fast ice, walking onto fast ice from a land-based hike or disembarking a vessel that has planted its bow into the ice. There isn’t the space here to outline specifics for each medium but here are a few ‘best practices’ cobbled together from different ice industries – and common sense:

If I decide to operate on sea-ice, I always thoroughly brief staff/drivers beforehand. This could include reasons why I am doing it; where they can land; what the boundaries of movement are; how many people/zodiacs at a time; situational factors – current/wind/temperatures. I ensure that everyone keeps a Personal Flotation Device (PFD) on. I check that there are enough throw bags, with staff who know how to use them, for all separate walking groups and high-risk areas (ice edge, near melt pools). This is made easy if every zodiac has a throw bag in it, but the bag is no use if it left on the zodiac! An ice axe or crevasse probe is a good idea to test holes, melt pools and cracks (a zodiac spare oar can serve a lessor role) and a sling is handy if someone should end up in the water. Oars, ropes or staff can be used to outline any ‘free-to-move’ areas. Of course, all passengers are briefed and offered the option to NOT go if they are uncomfortable. It’s important that guests can make their own choices via thorough briefings. I would also check that my staff members are happy with the excursion and understand the safety decisions. Talking through the decision-making processes used to accept the risks is useful education for everyone. Lastly, I give thought to currents and/or movement of other ice if I’m likely to be on floes or near other moving ice that may impede access.

A zodiac fleet landing can minimize risk in a number of ways if there are any factors that dictate this action. I keep the time short (i.e., less exposure to the risk) and contain the area of movement and/or numbers on the ice at any one time. If conditions or space is limiting, I might choose to stay on the ice with one other staff member and call zodiacs one at a time to help the drivers. To conduct a safe sea-ice landing, there must be someone in the team with the necessary skills and experience to brief and teach others about what causes ice strength and how thickness can vary across an area. When on a section of ice, someone needs to have poked and prodded ALL possible weaknesses in the area of operation. Sea ice forms pockets of brine as it freezes causing variations in
strength, as does changing temperatures and thinning due to erosion from strong currents. There are also risks from active or newly formed cracks, especially if thin ice has been covered with snow.

Ice excursions can be unique and fun for your guests but before deciding to do one, ask yourself if the risks involved are really worth the experience to be gained. If you do choose to incorporate them into your itinerary, does your team have the necessary experience and skills to assess the risk and execute them safely and responsibly?

Be safe. Have fun.