New NRC risk assessment software helps ships navigate safe passage through the Arctic

December 9, 2022

Press release from the National Research Council of Canada

View from the front of a ship in arctic ice

The Arctic is a complex navigational setting that demands more planning than most other parts of the world – and the risks are only increasing. Ice hazards vary from year to year, and conditions can change quickly during weather events. Climate change is leading to shorter ice seasons and is creating more open passages that are a magnet for adventure-seekers. More than ever, shipping operators and regulators need up-to-date information to assess risks for Arctic voyages.

Assessment of route safety in Arctic waters is largely a manual, experience-based task. However, that is changing due in part to the new Canadian Arctic Shipping Risk Assessment System (CASRAS). Developed by the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) in collaboration with the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG), Transport Canada (TC), Department of National Defence (DND), the Government of Northwest Territories, Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Canadian Ice Service, the shipping industry and non-governmental organizations, CASRAS supports safe planning and navigation of northern routes, training of ice navigators, and transparency in marine regulatory processes, through data analytics and customizable risk reports. It allows for visualization of current and expected ice conditions, and produces colour-coded maps delineating both safe and dangerous areas.

The NRC’s research lead, Denise Sudom, from the Ocean, Coastal and River Engineering Research Centre, says that CASRAS puts shipping risk assessment at vessel operators’ fingertips to help them visualize what’s ahead. “Using relevant information from the database, they can plot their route on a map and assess regulatory compliance and potential risks,” she says.

CASRAS contains more than 80 data sets. These include current and historical ice conditions and statistics, 2-day high-resolution ice forecasts, historical data on weather, waves and tides, protected areas for marine wildlife, Indigenous land use and conservation plans, and information on Northern communities and ports. CASRAS works in places where internet connectivity is unreliable or unavailable (a known issue in the North) and allows for most updates to be done while vessels are in port, which minimizes the need to use network bandwidth for data download at sea.

Arctic safety and security

Cory Toews, Technical Services Manager, Marine Safety and Security, Transport Canada adds that CASRAS is a user-driven tool with flexibility for collaborators. “The information stored in the CASRAS databases, its functionality and Transport Canada’s continued involvement will help maintain marine safety systems in the Canadian Arctic.”

Transport Canada’s top priority is to help keep recreational and commercial boaters and seafarers safe while protecting Canada’s coasts. “We develop and implement policies and regulations, and administer legislation like the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act,” he says, pointing out that they also partner with other federal government departments and agencies to improve Canada’s marine safety and security. Of particular benefit to TC is CASRAS’s data on places of refuge, safe areas for ships needing assistance.

In summer of 2021, Transport Canada used CASRAS to assess the risk of responding to a ship that would have violated Canada’s Interim Order restricting foreign recreational boats from transiting the Northwest Passage during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The latest study on shipping in Canada’s Arctic shows that traffic in the region almost tripled between 1990 and 2015. While most of the traffic is cargo ships and government vessels (including icebreakers), recreational boats and private yachts, used for “adventure tourism”, are the fastest-growing segment. Such changes pose new threats to the shipping industry and the environment. Additional traffic can lead to increased carbon dioxide emissions, higher noise levels that disturb ecosystems, negative impacts to coastal communities and possible violations of Canada’s marine travel regulations.

The Canadian Coast Guard has long patrolled the high Arctic and provided icebreaking and search-and-rescue services. They have used CASRAS to support their Northern operations for more than 5 years. With new challenges emerging, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) is stepping up its presence in the area. To that end, DND’s Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) Atlantic Research Centre, the RCN naval operations shore support centres, and several RCN ships have begun using CASRAS. These include the 3 new ice-capable Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) HMCS Harry DeWolfMargaret Brooke and Max Bernays.

The HMCS Margaret Brooke recently participated in Operation Nanook, the Canadian Armed Forces’ signature annual northern operation in which ships are deployed to Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Labrador. Its goals include promoting defence and security of the Arctic, developing community relations in the far North, and conducting scientific trials and patrols that will improve the capability to operate in challenging regions. The RCN worked alongside ships from the United States Coast Guard, the Royal Danish Navy and the French Navy. CASRAS was used to provide ice and environmental awareness during Operation Nanook, as well as analysis of historical ice conditions to assist with site selection for the icebreaking trials of the new AOPS.

Mark Stoddard, DRDC group leader in maritime systems, experimentation and analytics (M-SEA), co-ordinates the provision of CASRAS to the RCN, and works with the NRC on enhancing the software. “This involves collecting RCN user feedback, supporting the integration of CASRAS decision products within naval operations planning and decision-making, and adding Department of National Defence data sets,” he says.

Full speed ahead

CASRAS is updated continually by the NRC, using input from researchers and collaborators. Software enhancements and new features are added yearly. Recently, the team worked with the Canadian Hydrographic Service to incorporate non-navigational Arctic bathymetry data into CASRAS. “Next year, we expect to add longer-range sea ice forecasts to aid vessel operators in seasonal planning of operations,” Ms. Sudom says.

As CASRAS continues to evolve and internet service in the Arctic improves, a new, complementary online platform is being developed. “That means more people will be able to collaborate and feed new data into the software to improve it on an ongoing basis,” adds Ms. Sudom. And that will continue to help safeguard Canada’s northern waters.

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Originally published on 8 December.

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