Ice Reconnaissance Division

Submitted by Bernard Wyer

Throughout the history of marine travel in the northern regions of North America, ice cover and icebergs have played a major role and presented the greatest obstacles to mariners. Until the invention of wireless communication, there was no organized method of reporting on marine navigation and encounters with ice. It was not until the Titanic sank in 1912, after striking an iceberg, that the international marine community organized a formal ice patrol and reporting system.

Although most previous expertise in ice reconnaissance and identification lay with the US Navy, in 1954, a joint committee of the Canadian government assigned responsibility for a national operational ice monitoring program to the Meteorological Service, (then, part of the Department of Transport) under the Basic Weather Division.

The first field operation was based in Cambridge Bay, Northwest Territories and commenced on July 13, 1957 and ended on November 7 later that year with a total seasonal flight time of 350 hours. The operation was managed by a US Naval Ice Forecaster and included three Canadian observers (recruited from Department of Transportation meteorological technicians and radio operators) as well as three US Naval observers.

The ice observers’ main task was to conduct aerial reconnaissance missions and eventually serve as ice and meteorological officers on board the Department of Transport (currently Canadian Coast Guard) icebreaking vessels. Unlike most other positions, working as a member of the division could and did, become the employees’ lives on a full time basis. This was due to the long field assignments and the proximity in which they lived and worked with their colleagues, and were “on the job” 24/7, often for months on end.

Helicopter flies over ice-covered St. Lawrence River near Quebec City.
Helicopter doing an ice reconnaissance mission over St. Lawrence River.

Today’s marine travel is much safer thanks to the pioneering work of this group and advancements in technology. Current earth-observation satellites such as RADARSAT-2 have advantages over the previous aerial surveillance missions since they can operate day and night in all weather conditions. They also relay information more efficiently, which has greatly improved the monitoring of Canada’s icy waters.

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