These nodes are intended to become part of a widespread sea-ice monitoring network.
Ben Evans and Dave Whelihan stand bundled up outside in minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit in the Arctic, with a helicopter behind them.
Ben Evans and Dave Whelihan document their experience at Operation Ice Camp 2024.

Shimmering ice extends in all directions as far as the eye can see. Air temperatures plunge to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit and colder with wind chills. Ocean currents drag large swathes of ice floating at sea. Polar bears, narwhals, and other iconic Arctic species roam wild.

For a week this past March, MIT Lincoln Laboratory researchers Ben Evans and Dave Whelihan called this place — drifting some 200 nautical miles offshore from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, on the frozen Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Circle — home. Two ice runways for small aircraft provided their only way in and out of this remote wilderness; heated tents provided their only shelter from the bitter cold. Here, in the northernmost region on Earth, Evans and Whelihan joined other groups conducting fieldwork in the Arctic as part of Operation Ice Camp (OIC) 2024, an operational exercise run by the Arctic Submarine Laboratory (ASL). Riding on snowmobiles and helicopters, the duo deployed a small set of integrated sensor nodes that measure everything from atmospheric conditions, to ice properties, to the structure of water deep below the surface.

A schematic showing a pipe-like sensor node incorporating multiple sensors above, at, and below sea ice.
The pipe-like sensor node incorporates multiple sensors above, at, and below the sea ice. Image: Lincoln Laboratory

Ultimately, they envision deploying an unattended network of these low-cost sensor nodes across the Arctic to increase scientific understanding of the trending loss in sea ice extent and thickness. Warming much faster than the rest of the world, the Arctic is a ground zero for climate change, with cascading impacts across the planet that include rising sea levels and extreme weather. Openings in the sea ice cover, or leads, are concerning not only for climate change but also for global geopolitical competition over transit routes and natural resources. A synoptic view of the physical processes happening above, at, and below sea ice is key to determining why the ice is diminishing. In turn, this knowledge can help predict when and where fractures will occur, to inform planning and decision-making. 

Winter "camp"

Every two years, OIC, previously called Ice Exercise (ICEX), provides a way for the international community to access the Arctic for operational readiness exercises and scientific research, with the focus switching back and forth; this year's focus was scientific research. Coordination, planning, and execution of the month-long operation is led by ASL, a division of the U.S. Navy's Undersea Warfighting Development Center responsible for ensuring the submarine force can effectively operate in the Arctic Ocean.

Making this inhospitable and unforgiving environment safe for participants takes considerable effort. The critical first step is determining where to set up camp. In the weeks before the first participants arrived for OIC 2024, ASL — with assistance from the U.S. National Ice Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, and UIC Science — flew over large sheets of floating ice (ice floes) identified via satellite imagery, landed on some they thought might be viable sites, and drilled through the ice to check its thickness. The ice floe must not only be large enough to accommodate construction of a camp and two runways but also feature both multiyear ice and first-year ice. Multiyear ice is thick and strong but rough, making it ideal for camp setup, while the smooth but thinner first-year ice is better suited for building runways. Once the appropriate ice floe was selected, ASL began to haul in equipment and food, build infrastructure like lodging and a command center, and fly in a small group before fully operationalizing the site. They also identified locations near the camp for two Navy submarines to surface through the ice.

The more than 200 participants represented U.S. and allied forces and scientists from research organizations and universities. Distinguished visitors from government offices also attended OIC to see the unique Arctic environment and unfolding challenges firsthand.

"Our ASL hosts do incredible work to build this camp from scratch and keep us alive," Evans says.

Evans and Whelihan, part of the Laboratory's Advanced Undersea Systems and Technology Group, first trekked to the Arctic in March 2022 for ICEX 2022. (The Laboratory in general has been participating since 2016 in these events, the first iteration of which occurred in 1946.) There, they deployed a suite of commercial off-the-shelf sensors for detecting acoustic (sound) and seismic (vibration) events created by ice fractures or collisions, and for measuring salinity, temperature, and pressure in the water below the ice. They also deployed a prototype fiber-based temperature sensor array developed by the Laboratory and research partners for precisely measuring temperature across the entire water column at one location, and a University of New Hampshire (UNH)−supplied echosounder to investigate the different layers present in the water column. In this maiden voyage, their goals were to assess how these sensors fared in the harsh Arctic conditions and to collect a dataset from which characteristic signatures of ice-fracturing events could begin to be identified. These events would be correlated with weather and water conditions to eventually offer a predictive capability.

"We saw real phenomenology in our data," Whelihan says. "But, we're not ice experts. What we're good at here at the Laboratory is making and deploying sensors. That's our place in the world of climate science: to be a data provider. In fact, we hope to open source all of our data this year so that ice scientists can access and analyze them and then we can make enhanced sensors and collect more data."

Interim ice

In the two years since that expedition, they and their colleagues have been modifying their sensor designs and deployment strategies. As Evans and Whelihan learned at ICEX 2022, to be resilient in the Arctic, a sensor must not only be kept warm and dry during deployment but also be deployed in a way to prevent breaking. Moreover, sufficient power and data links are needed to collect and access sensor data.

"We can make cold-weather electronics, no problem," Whelihan says. "The two drivers are operating the sensors in an energy-starved environment — the colder it is, the worse batteries perform — and keeping them from getting destroyed when ice floes crash together as leads in the ice open up."

Their work in the interim to OIC 2024 involved integrating the individual sensors into hardened sensor nodes and practicing deploying these nodes in easier-to-access locations. To facilitate incorporating additional sensors into a node, Whelihan spearheaded the development of an open-source, easily extensible hardware and software architecture.

In March 2023, the Lincoln Laboratory team deployed three sensor nodes for a week on Huron Bay off Lake Superior through Michigan Tech's Great Lakes Research Center (GLRC). Engineers from GLRC helped the team safely set up an operations base on the ice. They demonstrated that the sensor integration worked, and the sensor nodes proved capable of surviving for at least a week in relatively harsh conditions. The researchers recorded seismic activity on all three nodes, corresponding to some ice breaking further up the bay.

"Proving our sensor node in an Arctic surrogate environment provided a stepping stone for testing in the real Arctic," Evans says.

Two people wearing cold-weather gear inspect a fiber spool inside a tent.
Whelihan (left) and Evans inspect their fiber spool, which is embedded with temperature and depth sensors, before deploying it on Huron Bay. Photo: GLRC

Evans then received an invitation from Ignatius Rigor, the coordinator of the International Arctic Buoy Program (IABP), to join him on an upcoming trip to Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow), Alaska, and deploy one of their seismic sensor nodes on the ice there (with support from UIC Science). The IABP maintains a network of Arctic buoys equipped with meteorological and oceanic sensors. Data collected by these buoys are shared with the operational and research communities to support real-time operations (e.g., forecasting sea ice conditions for coastal Alaskans) and climate research. However, these buoys are typically limited in the frequency at which they collect data, so phenomenology on shorter time scales important to climate change may be missed. Moreover, these buoys are difficult and expensive to deploy because they are designed to survive in the harshest environments for years at a time.  

The Laboratory-developed sensor nodes could offer an inexpensive, easier-to-deploy option for collecting more data over shorter periods of time. In April 2023, Evans placed a sensor node in Utqiaġvik on landfast sea ice, which is stationary ice anchored to the seabed just off the coast. During the sensor node's week-long deployment, a big piece of drift ice (ice not attached to the seabed or other fixed object) broke off and crashed into the landfast ice. The event was recorded by a radar maintained by the University of Alaska Fairbanks that monitors sea ice movement in near real time to warn of any instability. Though this phenomenology is not exactly the same as that expected for Arctic sea ice, the researchers were encouraged to see seismic activity recorded by their sensor node.

In December 2023, Evans and Whelihan headed to New Hampshire, where they conducted echosounder testing in UNH's engineering test tank and on the Piscataqua River. Together with their UNH partners, they sought to determine whether a low-cost, hobby-grade echosounder could detect the same phenomenology of interest as the high-fidelity UNH echosounder, which would be far too costly to deploy in sensor nodes across the Arctic. In the test tank and on the river, the low-cost echosounder proved capable of detecting masses of water moving in the water column but with considerably less structural detail than afforded by the higher-cost option. Seeing such dynamics is important to inferring where water comes from and understanding how it affects sea ice breakup — for example, how warm water moving in from the Pacific Ocean is coming into contact with and melting the ice. So, the Laboratory researchers and UNH partners have been building a medium-fidelity, medium-cost echosounder.

Three echosounders are lowered into an engineering test tank at the University of New Hampshire.
The three types of echosounders are lowered into the UNH engineering test tank: low cost (top, mounted to gray piece of plastic), high cost (middle, orange), and medium cost (bottom). Photo: Lincoln Laboratory

In January 2024, Evans and Whelihan — along with Jehan Diaz, a fellow staff member in their research group — returned to GLRC. With logistical support from their GLRC hosts, they snowmobiled across the ice on Portage Lake, where they practiced several activities to prepare for OIC 2024: augering (drilling) six-inch holes in the ice, albeit in thinner ice than that in the Arctic; placing their long, pipe-like sensor nodes through these holes; operating cold-hardened drones to interact with the nodes; and retrieving the nodes. They also practiced sensor calibration by hitting the ice with an iron bar some distance away from the nodes and correlating this distance with the resulting measured acoustic and seismic intensity.

"Our time at GLRC helped us mitigate a lot of risks and prepare to deploy these complex systems in the Arctic," Whelihan says.

Three scientists place their sensor node enclosure on the ice on Portage Lake, practice drone operations with the node, and review collected data.
(From left to right) Diaz, Evans, and Whelihan put their sensor node enclosure on the ice on Portage Lake, practice drone operations with the node (pipe sticking out of enclosure), and review data collected during drone operations. Photo: GLRC

Arctic again

To get to OIC, Evans and Whelihan first flew to Prudhoe Bay and reacclimated to the frigid temperatures. They spent the next two days at the Deadhorse Aviation Center hangar inspecting their equipment for transit-induced damage, which included squashed cables and connectors that required rejiggering.

"That's part of the adventure story," Evans says. "Getting stuff to Prudhoe Bay is not your standard shipping; it's ice road trucking."

From there, they boarded a small aircraft to the ice camp.

"Even though this trip marked our second time coming here, it was still disorienting," Evans continues. "You land in the middle of nowhere on a small aircraft after a couple-hour flight. You get out bundled in all of your Arctic gear in this remote, pristine environment."

After unloading and rechecking their equipment for any damage, calibrating their sensors, and attending safety briefings, they were ready to begin their experiments.

An icy situation

Inside the project tent, Evans and Whelihan deployed the UNH-supplied echosounder and a suite of ground-truth sensors on an automated winch to profile water conductivity, temperature, and depth (CTD). Echosounder data needed to be validated with associated CTD data to determine the source of the water in the water column. Ocean properties change as a function of depth, and these changes are important to capture, in part because masses of water coming in from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans arrive at different depths. Though masses of warm water have always existed, climate change–related mechanisms are now bringing them into contact with the ice.  

"As ice breaks up, wind can directly interact with the ocean because it's lacking that barrier of ice cover," Evans explains. "Kinetic energy from the wind causes mixing in the ocean; all the warm water that used to stay at depth instead gets brought up and interacts with the ice."

A person rides on a slide towed by a snowmobile.
A snowmobile towed the researchers and their equipment to a more remote part of camp. Photo: Lincoln Laboratory

They also deployed four of their sensor nodes several miles outside of camp. To access this deployment site, they rode on a sled pulled via a snowmobile driven by Ann Hill, an ASL field party leader trained in Arctic survival and wildlife encounters. The temperature that day was minus 55 degrees Fahrenheit. At such a dangerously cold temperature, frostnip and frostbite are all too common. To avoid removal of gloves or other protective clothing, the researchers enabled the nodes with WiFi capability (the nodes also have a satellite communications link to transmit low-bandwidth data). Large amounts of data are automatically downloaded over WiFi to an arm-wearable haptic (touch-based) system when a user walks up to a node.

"It was so cold that the holes we were drilling in the ice to reach the water column were freezing solid," Evans explains. "We realized it was going to be quite an ordeal to get our sensor nodes out of the ice." 

So, after drilling a big hole in the ice, they deployed only one central node with all the sensor components: a commercial echosounder, an underwater microphone, a seismometer, and a weather station. They deployed the other three nodes, each with a seismometer and weather station, atop the ice.

"One of our design considerations was flexibility," Whelihan says. "Each node can integrate as few or as many sensors as desired."

Two people use an auger to drill a hole into sea ice.
Whelihan (left) and Hill use a 10-inch auger to drill a hole in the ice. Photo: Lincoln Laboratory

The small sensor array was only collecting data for about a day when Evans and Whelihan, who were at the time on a helicopter, saw that their initial field site had become completely cut off from camp by a 150-meter-wide ice lead. They quickly returned to camp to load the tools needed to pull the nodes, which were no longer accessible by snowmobile. Two recently arrived staff members from the Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies offered to help them retrieve their nodes. The helicopter landed on the ice floe near a crack, and the pilot told them they had half an hour to complete their recovery mission. By the time they had retrieved all four sensors, the crack had increased from thumb to fist size. 

"When we got home, we analyzed the collected sensor data and saw a spike in seismic activity corresponding to what could be the major ice-fracturing event that necessitated our node recovery mission," Whelihan says.  

A photo of a 150-meter-wide opening in Arctic sea ice.
This opening in the ice unexpectedly separated the sensor deployment site from camp, prompting an early retrieval of the sensors via helicopter. Photo: Lincoln Laboratory

The researchers also conducted experiments with their Arctic-hardened drones to evaluate their utility for retrieving sensor node data and to develop concepts of operations for future capabilities.

"The idea is to have some autonomous vehicle land next to the node, download data, and come back, like a data mule, rather than having to expend energy getting data off the system, say via high-speed satellite communications," Whelihan says. "We also started testing whether the drone is capable on its own of finding sensors that are constantly moving and getting close enough to them. Even flying in 25-mile-per-hour winds, and at very low temperatures, the drone worked well."

A person flies a drone near a sensor node in the Arctic.
Whelihan flies the drone near a sensor node. Photo: Lincoln Laboratory

Aside from carrying out their experiments, the researchers had the opportunity to interact with other participants. Their "roommates" were ice scientists from Norway and Finland. They met other ice and water scientists conducting chemistry experiments on the salt content of ice taken from different depths in the ice sheet (when ocean water freezes, salt tends to get pushed out of the ice). One of their collaborators — Nicholas Schmerr, an ice seismologist from the University of Maryland — placed high-quality geophones (for measuring vibrations in the ice) alongside their nodes deployed on the camp field site. They also met with junior enlisted submariners, who temporarily came to camp to open up spots on the submarine for distinguished visitors.

"Part of what we've been doing over the last three years is building connections within the Arctic community," Evans says. "Every time I start to get a handle on the phenomenology that exists out here, I learn something new. For example, I didn't know that sometimes a layer of ice forms a little bit deeper than the primary ice sheet, and you can actually see fish swimming in between the layers."

"One day, we were out with our field party leader, who saw fog while she was looking at the horizon and said the ice was breaking up," Whelihan adds. "I said, 'Wait, what?' As she explained, when an ice lead forms, fog comes out of the ocean. Sure enough, within 30 minutes, we had quarter-mile visibility, whereas beforehand it was unlimited."

A group of about 15 people bundled in cold-weather gear stand with flags for their countries Australia, France, Canada, United Kingdom, and USA that were planted in Arctic sea ice.
The scientists participating in OIC24 display flags representing their countries. Photo: U.S. Navy

Back to solid ground

Before leaving, Whelihan and Evans retrieved and packed up all the remaining sensor nodes, adopting the "leave no trace" philosophy of preserving natural places.

"Only a limited number of people get access to this special environment," Whelihan says. "We hope to grow our footprint at these events in future years, giving opportunities to other Laboratory staff members to attend."

In the meantime, they will analyze the collected sensor data and refine their sensor node design. One design consideration is how to replenish the sensors' battery power. A potential path forward is to leverage the temperature difference between water and air, and harvest energy from the water currents moving under ice floes. Wind energy may provide another viable solution. Solar power would only work for part of the year because the Arctic Circle undergoes periods of complete darkness.

The team is also seeking external sponsorship to continue their work engineering sensing systems that advance the scientific community's understanding of changes to Arctic ice; this work is currently funded through Lincoln Laboratory's internally administered R&D portfolio on climate change. And, in learning more about this changing environment and its critical importance to strategic interests, they are considering other sensing problems that they could tackle using their Arctic engineering expertise.

"The Arctic is becoming a more visible and important region because of how it's changing," Evans concludes. "Going forward as a country, we must be able to operate there."

Inquiries: contact Ariana Tantillo.

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