On a gloomy Nova Scotia afternoon April 4, 2018, a small group gathered in Halifax’s Fairview Lawn Cemetery to remember the 1,503 lives lost in the sinking of the Titanic. The remains of 121 are buried in the cemetery, where mourners have come to honor them for more than a century. The infamous sinking occurred after the Titanic struck an iceberg April 14, 1912.
Tragedies like the Titanic will always steal the headlines, and rightfully so. But rare is a news story about work that goes into preventing them from happening in the first place.
The International Ice Patrol excels at preventing maritime disasters rather than responding to them. Perhaps this explains why the IIP is arguably the most-overlooked operational mission of the U.S. Coast Guard.
In the 106 years since the sinking of the Titanic prompted the IIP’s implementation, not a single vessel heeding an iceberg warning issued by the service has collided with an iceberg.
During a typical ice season, extending from February through August, and sometimes into September, the Coast Guard’s Ice Patrol routinely flies to St. John’s, Newfoundland, on HC-130J Super Hercules aircraft from Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City to search for icebergs. Twice a month for nine days at a time, a typical air crew consists of eight members from Air Station Elizabeth City, who welcome aboard five ice observers based out of New London, Connecticut. The team conducts aerial reconnaissance missions over the North Atlantic Ocean, searching for iceberg threats to the transatlantic shipping lanes.
As the shortest distance between Europe and North America is riddled with icebergs for much of ice season, maritime transportation companies depend upon reports published by the IIP to determine the safest, most economical routes for maritime commerce between the continents.
If weather provides the right conditions, the crew takes off from St. John’s and patrols about 7-9 hours at an altitude usually between 500 and 2,000 feet. They scan roughly 30,000 square nautical miles in an average flight. The crew depends on the aircraft’s 360 degree sea search radar, and verifies what the technology finds with human observers looking out the aircraft’s windows. The IIP’s findings are sent to the Ice Patrol Operations Center in New London, Connecticut. Watchstanders there input the data into the Iceberg Analysis and Prediction System (BAPS). BAPS uses an iceberg drift and deterioration model to move and melt the icebergs based on the iceberg’s position, size, and shape and environmental data, such as winds, waves, sea surface temperatures and currents.
The model predicts where the icebergs will be in the next 24 hours and what size they will be. The watchstanders use the model output to establish the iceberg limit.
The maritime community knows – if they stay outside of this limit, they will be safe from iceberg collision.