Understanding the ice environment is critical to Arctic success

Scott Cameron

December 3, 2013

Declining reserves from mature fields worldwide, the ongoing demand for oil, and retreating sea ice have brought a flurry of exploration activity to the Arctic. The US Geological Survey estimates undiscovered Arctic petroleum resources of 90 billion bbls of oil and 1,669 tcf of natural gas—roughly a quarter of the world’s undiscovered, technically recoverable, hydrocarbons. Russian scientists suggest Arctic resources may be comparable to those of the Persian Gulf or Western Siberian basins. Given the size of the prize, international oil companies and governments are initiating new Arctic ventures. However, operators and service companies face daunting technical and environmental challenges. Extreme weather and encroaching ice threaten and often curtail costly Arctic operations. In a recent example, sea ice unexpectedly delayed access to several drilling locations, and at another site, drilling was suspended one day after commencing due to a huge ice sheet drifting toward it.

The challenges of Arctic ice navigation

Dangerous ice conditions limit the Arctic operating season to less than a year. To maximize the operational window and optimize their ice defense strategies, ice observers and analysts onshore and aboard seismic vessels and drilling rigs must track and predict the movement of ice floes and icebergs. If ice begins to encroach beyond a certain perimeter, operators need to make well-informed decisions to ensure the safety of personnel, equipment, and the environment.

Historically, the primary task of an Arctic ice observer has been to manually record ice conditions in logs or spreadsheets by directly observing ice from the bridge. However, accurately monitoring and predicting ice movement requires additional information including live radar, satellite images, weather reports, and ice and navigation charts. In the past, ice specialists printed reports, maps and images on paper and attempted to make sense of disparate data. This complex process was largely manual and mental.

Later, rudimentary ice navigation software enabled ice analysts to view limited electronic ice charts, satellite images, and radar in one place—a good first step. However, they still had to download files from multiple sources via FTP, QC the data and manage it in a timely manner. Some information was not time-stamped or georeferenced, so they could not overlay and correlate all maps and images. What’s more, certain types of data—vessel positioning, weather, metocean, maps of currents, wind, sea temperature and so on—remained separate and inaccessible from within the software.

Early ice navigation technology became fairly standard in Arctic operations, but lacking automation, the process of integrating diverse information remained complex and time-consuming. As Captain Norm Thomas of the Canadian Coast Guard put it: “Alone on the bridge, ice data management systems should not take observers away from looking out the window.”

A modern, integrated ice management solution

ION Geophysical has been operating in the Arctic since 2006. Conducting 15 projects over eight operating seasons, approximately 65,000 km of seismic data has been acquired in or near ice, and over 30,000 km under ice. Using conventional ice navigation software, ION’s ice observers became frustrated with the software’s inability to combine or visualize key ice information required for operational effectiveness.

As a result, ION’s Concept Systems developed a new integrated ice management solution, named Narwhal™ for Ice Management.

Released commercially in September 2013, Narwhal provides visualization, analysis, tracking, monitoring, prediction, and risk mitigation tools for offshore Arctic seismic and drilling operations. This modern GIS-based system automatically downloads a variety of ice data products via satellite from ION’s data hosting service. It organizes, loads, timestamps, and georeferences every piece of information. Ice analysts and observers can rapidly and easily configure an unlimited number of GIS layers. They can blend ice charts, satellite images, live radar, weather forecasts, metocean and other data, and log ice observations—all on a single map, combined with the operational picture.

Unique new ice management capabilities include multi-vessel sharing and visualization, automated alerts for approaching ice, animation of both ice and vessel trajectories through time (past and near future), and a complete audit trail at the end of the operating season.

2013 field trials and results

During its voyage through the Northwest Passage last summer, the Polar Prince, an ice-classed seismic survey vessel, put the software to the test. As it began to automatically receive ice charts from the Canadian Ice Service, the ice specialist turned on Narwhal’s “trafficability” system. This capability allowed the analyst to compare the Polar Prince’s specific ice classification with sea ice conditions to determine go/no go areas. Narwhal indicated that the Queen Maud Gulf would be impassible. Rather than sailing onward, the captain made the strategic decision to shelter for a week until it became passable.

“Navigating without Narwhal,” he said, “the increased propulsion needed to break through the ice would have increased our fuel usage. That would have lowered our weight (momentum), consuming even more fuel and increasing overall costs.”

Elsewhere in the Arctic, operators have been conducting site surveys of potential drilling locations in Baffin Bay on the west coast of Greenland. After using traditional ice navigation software for several years, one international oil company decided to field test the Narwhal system.

During the survey, ice analysts accessed more than 20 different ice data products. In addition, observers manually entered information about ice fragments known as “bergy bits” and “growlers” that were too small to show up on ice data products. Plotting their location, speed, and direction, analysts used Narwhal’s time-slide animations to predict where the ice would move in the coming days. Personnel working in hazardous areas specified by a pre-set alarm perimeter could proactively move elsewhere until it was clear again, ensuring safe and efficient deployment of costly resources.

Although it had been installed originally as a secondary ice management system, Narwhal quickly became embedded in daily decision-making processes.

“Narwhal enables integration of various data sources,” said the operator’s metocean specialist. “It allows quick review of historical data, and efficient sharing of ice information.” Due to automation, he added, “Narwhal reduces time spent handling and processing data by 25 percent, allowing observers to spend more time looking out the window and interacting with marine crews.”

As operations continue to increase in more Arctic areas, both oil and service companies will need integrated ice management capabilities to ensure safe, efficient, and environmentally responsible exploration and drilling projects throughout the short operating season. OE

Scott Cameron, Narwhal Product Manager, ION Concept Systems. Based in Edinburgh, Scotland, Scott joined Concept Systems in 1994 after graduating with an honors degree in Computer Science. Scott has been involved in the design and development of ION Concept Systems command and control systems in the seismic exploration arena for many years. These days, Scott is the chief architect and product manager for ION’s Narwhal Ice Management Solution, bringing together years of system design and command and control experience while working closely with the ice community to design and develop a solution fit for 21st century Arctic operations.

Caption Image (top): Ice alert system for a range of operating scenarios. Image Credit: ION.

Caption Image (bottom): Visualization and analysis - integration of satellite imagery, ice charts and more. Image Credit: ION.