As drownings rise, communities in icy regions adapt to dangers of warming

by Jack Graham | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 20 November 2020 15:31 GMT

A SmartICE sensor being deployed which measures ice and snow thickness and relays the data to nearby communities via satellite. HANDOUT/SmartICE/Rex Holwell

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Global warming is making ice conditions less stable, bringing a need for better safety among ice-dependent people like Canada's Inuit

By Jack Graham

TORONTO, Nov 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For Inuit communities in Canada's Arctic region, having ice underfoot is a way of life. They have travelled, hunted and harvested on frozen surfaces for centuries - and during the winter months vital supplies arrive by ice roads.

But changing weather patterns and a warming ocean are making the ice thinner and weaker, said Trevor Bell, a geographer at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

"Inuit knowledge has kept indigenous people safe on the ice for generations," he said.

However, this is now being challenged by "unprecedented ice conditions", he added.

2019 government report said Canada's climate is warming, on average, by about double the global rate - driven by emissions of carbon dioxide from human activity - with Northern Canada warming even faster.

As the climate changes, safety risks are increasing in regions around the world where people interact with frozen lakes, rivers and seas.

According to a new study published this week in the journal PLOS ONE, warmer winters in ice-covered regions are increasing the likelihood of deaths from drowning during the winter months.

It found that 44% of winter drowning cases without vehicles involved children under the age of nine.

Analyzing data from more than 4,000 fatalities in 10 countries since 1990, the paper said higher temperatures were leading to more unstable and dangerous ice conditions, especially during early and late winter.

The risk of drowning was highest in places where indigenous livelihoods require extended periods on the ice, particularly in Canada's northern territories, said Sapna Sharma, the lead researcher from York University in Toronto.

"Even though the temperatures are very cold, they had the highest drownings per capita of any region we looked at in the world," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that Alaska in the United States was another hotspot.

Sharma said ice needs long periods of cold weather to become thick and strong. Changes in the weather, like more frequent spells of rain and warmer temperatures, not only make ice thinner but decrease its structural integrity, she added.

Barbara Byers, chief research officer for the Lifesaving Society Ontario, a drowning-prevention charity, said all ice carried some risk and appearances could be deceiving.

Children, in particular, do not naturally exercise caution with ice, and in places like Canada with so many water bodies, restricting access is not an option.

"The most important thing is education, and education with children from the time they're younger," Byers said, pointing to the importance of distributing information and guidelines.

SmartICE operators at ice safety monitoring training in Pangnirtung on Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada. HANDOUT/ SmartICE/Trevor Bell


To help Inuit people adapt to less stable ice, Memorial's Bell founded SmartICE, a social enterprise that allows communities to monitor ice safety.

Sensors measure ice and snow thickness in real-time, and the information is transmitted to community members via satellite so they can travel more safely.

With funding from the federal government and foundations, SmartICE is training and employing young Inuit adults to assemble the technology and use it locally to map safe routes.

This winter, Bell said the organization will support 24 communities in the Inuit Nunangat homeland in Canada.

SmartICE is also producing ice safety posters and working on household booklets for families and curriculums for children as young as kindergarten age, all written in Inuktitut, the language spoken by Inuit communities in the Canadian Arctic.

Inuktitut ice terminology is "much more extensive and meaningful" than in English, he explained, with four or five times as many terms, based on centuries of knowledge of living on the ice passed down orally.

"That's ultimately what will keep people safe," Bell said.

In many other regions, including further south in Canada, Sharma said the dangers surrounding ice tend to revolve more around recreational activities than day-to-day life.

The study found the use of snowmobiles on frozen lakes, particularly by adults in their early 20s, was associated with many fatalities.

Although people tend to associate climate change with polar bears or extreme weather, Sharma said her results demonstrated they should take the connection with ice safety more seriously.

"Ice is a part of our culture in Canada and it's changing here now," she said. "We need to adapt our decision-making."

(Reporting by Jack Graham; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit

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