Engaging users of sea ice forecasts to improve next-generation products and services


Increasing uncertainty about future sea ice conditions presents a distinct challenge to the industry, policymakers, and planners responsible for economic, safety, and risk mitigation decisions.

By: Lawrence Hislop and Gwen Hamon // CliC – The Climate and Cryosphere project of the World Climate Research Programme


The ability to accurately forecast the extent and duration of Arctic sea ice on different timescales provides significant implications for the operation of wide-ranging Arctic maritime activities. In the last decade, the complexity of methods used to make sea ice predictions has increased considerably, with many new contributions from the modelling community. But are these developments finding their way into better forecast products that meet the specific needs of the individual stakeholders composing the forecast user community? What is actually needed to ensure the safety of the crew and ships operating in ice-covered waters, to comply with international standards and regulations, and to enable sustainable economic development?

To explore ways to improve the utility of sea ice forecasts, a small group of partners (listed below) in sea ice research and forecasting organised a workshop during the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, Norway in January 2018. The main goal was to bring together sea ice forecasters and stakeholders, to have an open discussion on what is possible to achieve with current forecasting systems and how to better meet stakeholders’ needs. Many other complementary projects are also focusing on this topic, and the hope is to link communities, share workshop results, and follow up with more dialogue.

Overarching questions and workshop format

The organising committee for the Arctic Frontiers workshop assembled a cross-section of forecasters from Europe and North America along with key representatives from the private sector to discuss emerging issues and highlight opportunities. The workshop focused on creating an engaging dialogue and gathering feedback from all participants in order to get a better understanding of current and future user needs.

Participants in breakout groups during the second half of the workshop. Photo: Lawrence Hislop / Norwegian Polar Institute

Some of the overarching questions addressed at the workshop included:

  • What is the economic value of current forecasting systems?
  • How are forecasts used in decision-making, and if they are not used, then why not?
  • What are the limits and opportunities associated with current forecasting systems?

The half-day workshop was organised around individual presentations in the first section, to help set the stage and introduce some key discussion items. This part focused on the capabilities of sea ice forecasting products and was followed by presentations on the user and stakeholder needs from an operations and management perspective. The second section was structured around small breakout groups that discussed the overarching and more specific pre-selected questions. The last part of the workshop was a series of plenary presentations summing up the discussions and conclusions.



Sea ice chart of Svalbard for 23 January 2018. In contrast to forecasts, typical ice charts such as this one are derived from near-real-time satellite observations. Source: Norwegian Meteorological Institute – MET Norway Norwegian Ice Service



Ensuring safety needs better communication

Paramount for all industries was ensuring the safety of the crew and ships operating in ice-covered waters, complying with the Polar Code, and following related international standards and regulations. The benefits of accurate sea ice forecasts were therefore highly valued for safeguarding the passage of vessels, improved logistics planning and overall efficiency.

Participants noted the importance of forecasts and the help they can provide in saving fuel and time as well as in reducing costs of maintenance and insurance. Moreover, the need for real-time information on the current sea ice state and for small-scale and high-resolution products was highlighted. Companies ultimately need to know if they can get through a very specific area, e.g. straits, bottlenecks and essential gateways. Therefore, knowing the ice thickness and strength in real time at a specific location and where the marginal ice zone transitions into pack ice is critical to moving ships safely and efficiently.

An overarching need identified by many of the participants centred around improved communications, both on the technical side and regarding human capacity/ability. North of 79° the main form of telecommunications is with Iridium technology and the data transfer rate is only 30 kb/s – which can be very limiting (especially for high-resolution and real-time information).


Any new forecast products or services will need to consider these limitations. Companies would also like more standards and agreement among forecasters concerning how to define important parameters such as the ice edge, first-year vs multi-year ice and overall quality of ice. There was a consensus among the participants that the human aspect of interpreting and conveying information in the right ways could dramatically improve these issues going forward.

Increased dialogue between forecasters and the user community is essential for developing new products and services that can help with short- and long-term planning.

In the future, the event organisers are looking to establish cooperation opportunities with the participants and to develop a longer-term strategy for continued engagement between these communities.  There are many opportunities for improvements in the reliability of sea ice forecasts and an eagerness amongst users to help tailor products that suit their needs. Such dialogue and enhancements should lead to better-informed stakeholder decision-making, a safer passage of vessels and sustainable economic development.


The research vessel "Lance" seen anchored to an ice floe during the INTPART cruise of 2017.
Photo: Lawrence Hislop / Norwegian Polar Institute.


Lawrence Hislop and Gwen Hamon // CliC – The Climate and Cryosphere project of the World Climate Research Programme


The following workshop sponsors are acknowledged: University College London (UCL), the Arctic Research Consortium of the U.S. (ARCUS), the Norwegian Ice Service – MET Norway, the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, the Climate and Cryosphere (CliC) project of the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), EU-PolarNet and the Research Council of Norway.