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Facebook gives scientists a front row seat on northern ice breakup

By Jerri Southcott
June 5, 2018

Anyone who’s seen ice break up in the North knows it’s an incredible experience, with large masses and floes of ice along the coast and racing downstream in turbulent rivers. And for those who live there in seasonally isolated communities with no road access, there’s a special, heightened anticipation as the spring thaw comes: their frozen world now opens up to boat transportation; ferries start running; and food and other necessities of life become more accessible and affordable.

Spring breakup also means flooding. Beginning in April, communities along rivers in the Mackenzie–Beaufort region are on high alert as the snow and ice melt, water levels rise, and ice jams form as chunks of ice flow into still-frozen stretches of river.

Dustin Whalen, a physical scientist with the Geological Survey of Canada, has been studying the ice breakup in the Mackenzie River Delta and southeastern Beaufort Sea for more than a dozen years. He and his colleagues Paul Fraser, remote sensing specialist, and Don Forbes, research scientist, know well how significant the ice breakup is to people in this region.

“Much of the area can be unsafe at this time of year,” says Whalen. “Even the major artery to the North, the Dempster Highway, shuts down during ice breakup because the highway’s ice bridge, which crosses the Mackenzie River, is obviously is no longer there.”

The science of the breakup

The focus of Whalen’s research is the physical science of the ice breakup and its various effects on the river geology, the nearshore and beyond. In the river, the advancing breakup can have several major consequences: erosion of the river’s bed and banks; overland flooding; and the influx of new sediment into the system.


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Ice along the coast acts as a natural barrier.

What’s more, in the region’s north, the Beaufort Sea coastline is constantly changing, and the particular time when the ice breaks up can affect the duration and intensity of wave and wind erosion on the coast. Finally, the melting and breakup of ice in the ocean itself can disturb the shallow seabed and affect sea transportation and critical marine ecosystems.

After spending years with the people in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in Canada’s western Arctic, Whalen has come to realize the breakup’s many effects on their everyday lives.

“As we were doing our research to better understand how the ice affects the physical or natural environment, we started to see that there was a real interest amongst the community, not only in our research but also in the reporting of what the ice is doing,” says Whalen.

Social media, citizen science

To engage people in the North on the breakup, Jen Lam — resource management coordinator with the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, which represents collective Inuvialuit interests — suggested using Facebook since many already rely on it heavily. The idea was to share scientific data and involve the community in the collection of data and the research process. At the same time, people throughout the region could share practical information on the ice breakup with each other.  
Launched two years ago, the public Facebook Group dedicated to the Mackenzie–Beaufort breakup has taken off: it now has 615 members, with more signing up every day.

Whalen is an administrator of the site and uploads information to it. Community interest is strong and goes well beyond simply following the scientific satellite images and updates. Members of the group provide real-time reports of what’s happening in their own region and share their knowledge of how the local environment has changed over the last few decades.

Good for science, good for communities


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Pieces of ice crumble together along the riverbank of the Mackenzie River at Norman Wells.

The Facebook page addresses a long-standing challenge that most field researchers face: how to collect data and answer questions without being on the ground all the time. “It provides a means for community-based monitoring in such a way that benefits both the community and the scientific research objectives,” says Whalen.

“Before the page was set up, we relied solely on satellite images, online water levels and the occasional picture. What this Facebook site has given us is a real look into what ice breakup looks like on river, ocean and land.”

And the site is generating its own set of useful research materials: since its launch in 2016, the group has received over 225 photos and posts.

Painting a bigger picture

This engagement with informal citizen science has led to a larger body of useful, up-to-date information.

“Before, the site would get the odd photo of somebody’s backyard flooding,” says Whalen. “Now, when somebody posts a photo of their backyard flooding, 20 more people post photos of similar flooding in their own backyards. Now, we can see just how this kind of thing plays out across the whole region.” Indeed, it’s become common for people to drive down the riverbank to take a photo so they can share it with everyone in the community.

Science of the people

“We are definitely scientists for the people when we work up there. When we work up north, very close to communities where people live, you’re really doing the science of the people. I appreciate that, and, I think, so do they,” he says.

Editor’s Note

Check out Part 2 of this story: Today’s forecast: scattered ice chunks with an 80% chance of flooding.


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