Ice Road Mapping using Ground Penetrating Radar

I realize August may seem like a strange time of year to be writing about Ice Roads. While we are enjoying one of the hottest summers on record plans are being put in place to ensure the safety of all those who have to cross large bodies of water to reach extreme northern remote communities this coming winter.

Ice roads and ice runways are commonly used for transportation in Northern Canada, Alaska, Northern Europe and Russia. These isolated communities and mining sites depend on the ice roads being secure in order to transport people and products they need to survive during the winter.

In the North West Territories they open shortly after the initial freeze in November and close just before the ice thaws in April. During this time vehicles weighing sometimes more than 50 tons (45,000 Kg) in weight are driven across these ice roads. At an average speed of 20 miles per hour over ice roads some trips take more than 20 hours one way.

To ensure the safety of the trucks traveling on these ice roads Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) is used to collect the data necessary to confirm the thickness of the ice (usually a minimum of about 27 inches). The GPR antenna is mounted on a sleigh and pulled behind a pickup truck or snowmobile. The antenna is connected to a computerized digital video logger (see below) in the vehicle allowing the GPR technician to see the ice thickness in real time.

ice thickness displayed on DVL

Sensors & Software DVL Display

This GPR data is saved and combined with exact GPS data (collected at the same time with an integrated GPS system). The data is then analyzed and interpreted by software which creates a map of the ice thickness for the entire stretch of the road. These ice road maps show the different ice thicknesses by color code making it easy to see the sections of the road that may be potentially dangerous.

ice thickness map

Color Coded Ice Map

To ensure the safety of the truck drivers, the ice thickness is measured weekly or even daily as the need dictates. No doubt this technology has saved the lives of countless people bringing supplies to the remote areas of the north.

This same technology could be used to map the ice thickness of our lakes and rivers which are used by ice fishermen and snowmobilers in the winter months. However, I’m not aware of any recreational communities currently utilizing this life saving technology. Perhaps it’s because these weekend activities are not deemed necessary for the survival of that community. It’s unfortunate they do not seem to be willing to invest in a technology that could save the lives of many recreational fisherman and snowmobilers.

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