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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sunday Ship History: International Ice Patrol

Yesterday, May 19th, marked the 95th anniversary of the founding of the North Atlantic Ice Patrol, founded in 1912. The precipitating event for the founding of the Patrol was the sinking of HMS Titanic on April 15, 1912, with the loss of over 1,500 passengers. A popular folksong of the time, sung by my grandfather laid the disaster out:
Oh, they built the ship Titanic, to sail the ocean blue.
For they thought it was a ship that water would never go through.
It was on its maiden trip, that an iceberg hit the ship.
It was sad when the great ship went down.

It was sad, so sad.
It was sad, so sad.
It was sad when the great ship went down (to the bottom of the....)
Husbands and wives, little children lost their lives.
It was sad when the great ship went down.
As noted below, the response to the sinking of the Titanic was the establishment of the North Atlantic Ice Patrol, designed to keep and eye on the icebergs floating south from Greenland and into the great circle sea lanes used by the shipping comapnies to minimize the travel time between Europe and North America.

The North Atlantic Ice Patrol became the International Ice Patrol:
After the TITANIC disaster, the U.S. Navy assigned the Scout Cruisers CHESTER and BIRMINGHAM to patrol the Grand Banks for the remainder of 1912. In 1913, the Navy could not spare ships for this purpose, so the Revenue Cutter

Service (forerunner of the Coast Guard) assumed responsibility, assigning the Cutters SENECA and MIAMI to conduct the patrol.

At the first International Conference on the Safety of Life at Sea, which was convened in London on November 12, 1913, the subject of patrolling the ice regions was thoroughly discussed. The convention signed on January 30, 1914, by the representatives of the world's various maritime powers, provided for the inauguration of an international derelict-destruction, ice observation, and ice patrol service, consisting of vessels, which should patrol the ice regions during the season of iceberg danger and attempt to keep the trans-Atlantic lanes clear of derelicts during the remainder of the year. Due primarily to the experience gained in 1912 and 1913, the United States Government was invited to undertake the management of the triple service, the expense to be defrayed by the 13 nations interested in trans-Atlantic navigation.

As the convention, when ratified, would not go into effect until July 1, 1915, the government of Great Britain on behalf of the several nations interested, made inquiry on January 31, 1914 as the whether the United States would undertake the patrol at once under the same mutual obligations as provided in the convention. The proposition was favorably considered by the President, and on February 7, 1914, he directed that the (then) Revenue Cutter Service begin as early as possible in that month, the International Ice Observation and Ice Patrol Service. Each year since then, with exception of the wartime years, a patrol has been maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Risk:
While icebergs are a constant navigational hazard in the Arctic, the cold Labrador Current carries some of them south to the vicinity of the Grand Banks and into the great circle shipping lanes between Europe and the major ports of the United States and Canada. Vessels transversing this area try to make their voyage as short and as economical as possible. Therefore, ships in the vicinity of the "limit of all known ice" normally will pass just to the south of this boundary. Vessels passing through Ice Patrol's published ice limit, run the risk of a collision with an iceberg and insurance concerns. In this area the Labrador Current meets the warm Gulf Stream and the temperature differences between the two water masses of up to 20 degrees Celsius, produces dense fog. The combination of icebergs, fog, severe storms, fishing vessels and busy trans-Atlantic shipping lanes makes this area one of the most dangerous.
The cost of maintaining the Ice Patrol is borne by the users of the service:
The thirteen nations signatory to the 1915 SOLAS Convention agreed to share costs in accordance with a formula approximating their degree of individual benefit. This sharing arrangement has been updated over the years as shipping patterns changed and as additional nations acceded to the treaty. Financial relations are handled by the Department of State which does the actual billing of each nation for its share of the cost. In the early days this share was a fixed percentage changed infrequently by treaty revision. In recent years, the cost share has been based on each participating nations percentage of the total cargo tonnage transiting the patrol area during the ice season.
The Ice Patrol has evolved over time:
From its inception until the beginning of World War II, the Ice Patrol was conducted from two surface patrol cutters alternating surveillance patrols of the southern ice limits. In 1931 and thereafter a third ship was assigned to Ice Patrol to perform oceanographic observations in the vicinity of the Grand Banks. After World War II, aerial surveillance became the primary ice reconnaissance method with surface patrols phased out except during unusually heavy ice years or extended periods of reduced visibility. Use of the oceanographic vessel continued until 1982, when the Coast Guard's sole remaining oceanographic ship, USCGC EVERGREEN, was converted to a medium endurance cutter. The aircraft has distinct advantages for ice reconnaissance providing much greater coverage in a relatively short period of time.
Today, the IIP boasts a proud record:
Except for the years of the two World Wars, the International Ice Patrol has conducted each season since 1913. During the period the Ice Patrol has amassed an enviable safety record with not a single reported loss of life or property due to collision with an iceberg outside the advertised limits of all known ice in the vicinity of the Grand Banks. However, the potential for a catastrophe still exists.
How important is the mission of the IIP?
Of all the peacetime threats of the sea, none are more fearsome, unyielding, and treacherous than icebergs. Despite ingenuity, resourcefulness, and almost a century of experience and technical advances, this natural wonder has resisted our efforts to control, regulate, and avoid it.

Breaking off from hundreds of West Greenland glaciers, frequently as long as a city block and towering up to 100 feet above the sea surface, icebergs are steered by ocean currents. Their enormous mass and the tremendous environmental forces acting on them render ineffective efforts to restrain or destroy them, or significantly alter their course.
Effects on shipping? In 1945, a large ice island (for definition of "tabular" re icebergs, see here) caused some wartime problems:
An interesting and enlightening story regarding an ice island occurred in May of 1945 and was reported in Bulletin No. 32: International Ice Observation and Ice Patrol Service in the North Atlantic Ocean - Season of 1946:

Several very large flat-topped bergs were reported, an example of which was the berg reported on the 27th in position 43�08'N / 49�18'W. This berg measured about 4,500 feet long, 3,300 feet wide, and its above-water height was approximately 50 feet. Growlers and debris from the huge block of ice were scattered over a radius of 5 miles. One of the last of the large North Atlantic convoys approached this great floating mass while in dense fog of the 27th and in the confusion that followed 21 ships were damaged. Two of these ships were reported to have suffered damage in collisions with ice and the remaining 19 to have suffered damage in collisions with each other. � All ships were able to proceed under their own power and no loss of life resulted.

The impact from the ice island, both figuratively and literally, was immediately felt as the Admiralty and Chief of Naval Operations issued, on May 28, 1945, a joint order that abolished convoys and forced all merchant ships to burn navigation lights at full brilliancy and not darken ship.

Additionally, even though North Atlantic ice patrol services had not been officially re-established, the United States Atlantic Fleet inaugurated twice-daily broadcasts from Argentia, Newfoundland at 0200 and 1400 GCT to shipping commencing on 8 June, 1945 as well as detailing a surface vessel patrol to the Grand Bank region (GPO, 1947).
Growlers? See here:
You might think that big icebergs are more dangerous, but that is not the case. Big icebergs can be seen easily by people on ships. The smaller icebergs (called growlers) can hide in the waves, making them difficult to see and more dangerous.
Very large icebergs are more common off Antarctica than from Greenland, but they do appear:
Exceptionally large icebergs, commonly referred to as ice islands, came again into the public eye recently with the breaking loose of a portion the Antarctic ice sheet roughly ten times the size of the island of Manhattan (Dykstra, 2002). The glaciers of the North Atlantic, specifically along the western coast of Greenland, are not as conducive to very large iceberg generation as southern hemisphere ice fields, but do occasionally produce "Antarctic" size icebergs.

Ice Season 2002 (February 17, 2002 through July 15, 2002) saw some of the largest North Atlantic icebergs on recent record. These icebergs were actively tracked for a period of approximately two months during the summer, were photographed, and were even examined with side-scan sonar instruments.

As noted here, icebergs are resistant to destruction except by natural means:
We have tried to destroy them by shooting them, bombing them from planes, and using explosives. We have even tried to paint them black. We have found that the safest way is to let the icebergs melt on their own.
Not only does the IIP work to warn shipping of ice hazards, they also provide invaluable oceanographic information to the world's scientists. See here. This includes providing data on the ocean currents propelling the icebergs.

The IIP is a small unit:
With just 16 members, today’s International Ice Patrol in many ways is a microcosm of the Coast Guard itself: a small (even by Coast Guard standards) unit of men and women committed to excellence in the performance of their duties.
The "ice season" lasts about 6 months, from February to July.

Since 1962, the HC-130 has been the primary patrol aircraft for the Ice Patrol, but other aircraft used ranged from B-24s to B-17s to Catalina PBYs and HU-16 Albatross. The HU-16 was used in experimental bombings of icebergs.

The main product of the Ice Patrol:
All the iceberg data are fed into a computer model at the IIP Operations Center along with ocean current and wind data. Using this information, the model predicts the drift of the icebergs. Every 12 hours, the predicted iceberg locations are used to estimate the limit of all known ice. This limit, along with a few of the more critical predicted iceberg locations, is broadcast as an "Ice Bulletin" from radio stations around the U.S., Canada, Europe and over the World Wide Web. This is for the benefit of all vessels transiting North Atlantic. In addition to the Ice Bulletin, a radio facsimile chart of the area, depicting the limits of all known ice, is also broadcast twice daily.
In addition, the historical record serves as a database to detect patterns of iceberg activity:

An interesting animated producted made from the Ice Patrol reports can be found here: Described as:
This animation not only tracks the speed and distance travelled of individual icebergs, but symbolically distinguishes their relative sizes by keeping growlers, bergy bits, and small icebergs small, while bigger icebergs are sized larger.

More on the IIP here and

Interesting work. A salute to all those who have served with the IIP!

UPDATE: How many icebergs per season cross into the sea lanes?
The mean number of icebergs passing south of 48 N is 473 icebergs with a standard deviation of 492 icebergs. Therefore, yearly totals are highly variable and are subject to highly variable climatic factors.
See the chart immediately above which, like most of the art contained herein, gets bigger if you click on it.

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