Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 8, 2013

Scientists turn to math to analyze, predict weather

BY GREG MONAHAN
Special to the Record-Eagle

— LANSING — Think all ice is the same?

That’s not the case on Michigan’s Great Lakes. And now scientists have found out how to detect the differences — with math.

The development, reported recently in the International Association for Great Lakes Research, is important because it could help guide freighters through Michigan’s icy lakes, assist the Coast Guard in breaking up large ice formations and help weather scientists predict evaporation that could lead to lake effect snow.

Researcher George Leshkevich of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Ann Arbor led the study with help from Son Nghiem of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The two developed a radar system and an algorithm to detect types of ice formations on the Great Lakes.

An algorithm is set of steps that are followed to solve a mathematical problem.

The researchers use radar systems from satellites or mounted locations to bounce a signal off the ice.

The radar sends back what Nghiem and Leshkevich call a “signature,” which can be interpreted using an equation to determine which type of ice lays on the water surface. This signature and resulting information from the equation allow scientists to measure things such as density and depth of ice.

Just as the handwriting of two people will never look exactly the same, different types of ice will return a unique signature that scientists can decipher.

Leshkevich created an algorithm that can differentiate one ice type from another by analyzing data from as far back as 1997. It allows researchers to differentiate among ice types by plugging in the data returned to the radar mechanism, and reading it to see which ice lies below.

It produces data that’s specific to each kind of ice formation, said Nghiem.

“You kind of create a dictionary which can translate the radar signature into a physical environment, like a different kind of ice type,” Nghiem said.

Although the algorithm can detect up to 20 variations of ice formations, Leshkevich and Nghiem boiled those down to five key types:

Brash ice — Large, thick ice chunks that break off larger ice formations

Pancake ice — Round pieces a few inches thick where the edges often curl up as ice pieces merge

Consolidated pack ice — Large ice floes that have frozen together

Stratified ice — Layered ice with differing thickness and density from top to bottom

Lake ice — traditional, thin blue ice that forms atop lakes

The algorithm can also detect calm water.

One application of the data is for the U.S. Coast Guard, which has a large operation in Michigan that focuses on breaking ice to make pathways for commercial freighters. The information will help the Coast Guard maneuver around the dangerous and damaging ice, which makes the clearing of shipping paths much easier, said Leshkevich.

“Some types of ice, like brash ice, are very problematic to shipping,” he said. “It’s very angular and can get very thick, and this ice is difficult sometimes even for the Coast Guard icebreakers to break through.”

The Coast Guard is anxiously waiting for the technology to be applied in the Great Lakes, said Mark Gill, director of vessel traffic service for Sector Sault Ste. Marie.

“This product will enable us to not only see the ice, but also tell what type of ice is there,” said Gill. “We’re really exciting about being to put that into use here as we come into the future domestic icebreaking seasons.”

But that application is at least a few years away.

By being able locate the most troublesome areas of ice, Coast Guard navigators can lessen harm to both their own ships and the ones they create paths for, Gill said.

“Knowing where the brash ice starts and how we route traffic around it can mean avoiding damage and unnecessary delays if we know where it’s at,” he said.

The technology can also assist ecologists and fisheries workers in understanding how the winter’s ice cover may impact fish populations in the Great Lakes, said Leshkevich.

“Fisheries are interested in it because some species need a stable ice cover over spawning beds for fish recruitment the next season,” he said. “They want to know the extent of the thickness and type of ice.”

The research can even help amateur boaters travel in the spring soon after a thaw with a downloadable map that highlights current ice formations, said Nghiem.

Nghiem plans to post those maps online. Boaters could download them to plot a course that avoids ice and instead heads toward open water.

While all ice may seem the same, knowing the difference can be beneficial for a number of industries. Leshkevich says the technology isn’t yet being applied directly, but he anticipates that in a few years their study will help make frozen Great Lakes waters a little easier to understand.

Greg Monahan writes for Great Lakes Echo and Michigan State University’s Capital News Service.