The European Space Agency (ESA) is currently funding a pilot project run by StormGeo and Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT), in which the companies provide information on Arctic weather and ice to their clients using advanced radar technology.
The ESA invited StormGeo and KSAT to apply for funding while the two companies were running the project for the Norwegian Space Agency (Norsk Romsenter) in 2017. Along with the ESA, other companies such as Viking Supply Ships, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line and Hurtigruten are also funding the project.
StormGeo’s Offshore Manager for Norway, Svein Inge Andersen, has been closely involved with the project. “Using satellite-mounted imaging radar, known as synthetic aperture radar or SAR, this combined weather and remote sensor system delivers weather and ice information to companies operating in the Arctic,” said Andersen.
The SAR is a “side-looking” radar system capable of taking high-resolution images from different polar orbiting satellites. “The use of SAR technology started in the 1990s and has continuously developed,” said Andersen. In a side-looking system, the radar beam points from the side of the satellite during data acquisition. This allows the signal to strike terrain at an oblique angle, enhancing the surface expression of geological structures and topographical features, such as subtle faults and folds. Because it displays the roughness of a surface, the imagery works well in the Arctic — showing where ice and sea separate, the type of ice and how concentrated it is.
Unlike conventional imagery, which is limited by cloud coverage and daylight, the SAR system provides its own source of illumination in the form of microwave energy. Microwave energy allows images to be obtained both day and night and penetrates most clouds, enabling image maps in cloud-covered areas.
Many different industries will benefit from this information, including oil and gas companies operating near ice as well as cruise ships. “With increased exploration and cruise activity around Spitsbergen as well as Canadian and American Arctic waters, we think these companies will benefit significantly from these image maps,” said Andersen.
Warming of the Arctic in recent decades, while adverse for the environment, has opened up the possibility for commercial exploration and navigation of polar waters. However, an increase in vessels amongst the remaining ice creates new challenges.
In 2007, the MS Explorer sank after hitting an iceberg in the Antarctic. An official investigation by the Liberian Bureau of Maritime Affairs reported that the captain misjudged the ice conditions, maneuvering the vessel through ice that was thicker than expected. Although no crew were harmed, the International Marine Organization enacted the IMO Assembly Resolution just one week later. This included “Guidelines on voyage planning for passenger ships operating in remote area” and describes the requirements for voyage and passage plans for ships operating in the Arctic or Antarctic. A passage plan should include information on swell, fog and the presence of ice and icebergs.
The SAR pilot project is just one of the solutions that StormGeo is developing to meet these requirements for Arctic navigation. Another is a research project with Equinor and Norwegian bank DNB to track the movement and behavior of icebergs in the Barents Sea.
The two companies were looking to partner with a forecasting company that had reliable models and statistical tools, as well as extensive knowledge of the Arctic. Although the risk for icebergs in the Barents is low, Equinor must mitigate any risk with contingency plans, including close monitoring and risk assessment.
“We feel we are working towards a very interesting opportunity to help clients conduct more, safer operations in the Arctic,” said Andersen. “By identifying the risks and operating safely with a green approach, we are really optimistic about what we can all achieve.”
The SAR pilot project is ongoing, with tests taking place on an icebreaker currently operating in the Bothnian Bay. StormGeo and Kongsberg aim to finalize the solution’s development and bring it to the market.