Below Zero: International Ice Patrol today

This is part of a series about all things cold weather – our missions, operations, and safety guidance. Follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and look for our #belowzero stories, images, and tips!

Written by Cmdr. Gabrielle McGrath and
Petty Officer 3rd Class Jennifer Crocker

A Coast Guard C-130 fixed wing aircraft overflies an iceberg during patrol. Service with the International Ice Patrol is one of the many operations of the C-130. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Brandon Brewer.

A Coast Guard C-130 fixed wing aircraft overflies an iceberg during patrol. Service with the International Ice Patrol is one of the many operations of the C-130. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Brandon Brewer.

From our last Ice Patrol blog… The mission of the International Ice Patrol is to monitor the iceberg danger in the North Atlantic Ocean and to provide relevant iceberg warning products to the maritime community. Every day, the Ice Patrol ingests iceberg reports from its own aerial reconnaissance and satellite imagery analysis, commercial aerial reconnaissance, ships, and even lighthouses! Once all of this data is compiled, Ice Patrol publishes an iceberg chart and bulletin. Both products’ main piece of information is the Iceberg Limit which advises vessels where the safe, ice-free waters are located. No vessels heeding Ice Patrol’s warning in the 104 years since its inception has collided with an iceberg. The Coast Guard is very proud of this enviable, perfect safety record and is dedicated to keeping vessels safe navigating across the North Atlantic.

During the ice season from February through August, Ice Patrol deploys to St. John’s, Newfoundland, on HC-130J Super Hercules aircraft from Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City twice per month to look for icebergs. With a crew of 13 (eight from Air Station Elizabeth City and five from Ice Patrol), the team conducts aerial reconnaissance missions over the North Atlantic Ocean for nine days searching for icebergs that currently threaten, or will threaten, the transatlantic shipping lanes.

Many people assume that the Ice Patrol would be busiest in the winter months. However, we are actually most active in May and June. Over the winter, sea ice grows off of the Newfoundland and Labrador coasts as the surface of the ocean freezes. The sea ice typically peaks in its extent and concentration around St. Patrick’s Day on March 17. Later in March, the sea ice begins to melt and retreat to the north. When the sea ice surrounds the icebergs, it protects them from deterioration from waves at their waterline. Once the sea ice melts, the icebergs are free to drift to the south and east, typically peaking in distribution in late May or early June. In 2016, the Southern Iceberg Limit reached the latitude of 40°N on June 25. For perspective, the RMS Titanic struck the iceberg and sunk at latitude 41°-43’N on April 14, 1912. You might be surprised to learn that 41°-43’N is roughly the same latitude as Providence, Rhode Island!

U.S. Coast Guard photo of tabular ice outside a HC-130 Hercules airplane.

U.S. Coast Guard photo of tabular ice outside a HC-130 Hercules airplane.

Each morning, while deployed in Newfoundland, the crew meets to decide whether it will be feasible to take off and land safely and whether the environmental conditions will be within parameters to detect icebergs. If the weather at the airport and in the operational area is cooperative, the aircraft will take off and patrol for about 7-9 hours at an altitude between 500 and 2,000 feet. We scan about 30,000 square nautical miles in an average flight. In order to achieve this coverage, we rely on the aircraft’s 360° sea search radar and verify what it finds with visual observations from the windows. The patrol’s findings are sent to the Ice Patrol Operations Center in New London, Connecticut. Watchstanders ingest the data into the Iceberg Analysis and Prediction System (BAPS). BAPS uses an iceberg drift and deterioration model to move and melt the icebergs based on the iceberg’s position, size, and shape and environmental data, such as winds, waves, sea surface temperatures, and currents. The model predicts where the icebergs will be in the next 24 hours and what size they will be. The watchstanders use the model output to establish the iceberg limit. The maritime community knows – if they stay outside of this limit, they will be safe from iceberg collision – we have our 104-year safety record to prove it!

Our mission has been documented by many media outlets such as 60 Minutes Australia and the Travel Channel’s Mysteries at the Museum, How do they do it? Atlas Obscura, the Canadian Press, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Bloomberg News, Discovery Channel Canada’s Daily Planet, Angry Planet, Monocle Magazine, Periscope Film and many others.

Tags: , ,