The North Atlantic is a dangerous place to work. 30 meter waves, blistering winds, and frigid cold make life tough for those working on the offshore oil derricks of the Grand Banks in Newfoundland. But there is a lot of research going into making conditions safer, and this innovation is making Canada a world leader in offshore drilling and Arctic exploration.

Monitoring and tracking

“In terms of the operation, you need to be able to monitor your environment extremely well at long ranges from where you are and be well prepared if there is sea ice, or icebergs that are going to be approaching you,” says Dr. Charles Randell, president and CEO of C-CORE, a non-profit R&D corporation developing technologies for offshore drilling and Arctic exploration.

“You have to monitor the environment, but you also need to alter the environment as well,” says Dr. Randell. “That means breaking up the ice so you reduce crashes and things like that or towing icebergs out of the way.”

“The general rule of thumb is if it works in the Grand Banks, it’ll work anywhere in the world because we have some of the harshest conditions.” – Stephen Green

Towing an iceberg is a much more complicated operation than one might think. The towing ship must wrap a sling around the iceberg and slowly pull it along, but the ropes can slip, or the iceberg can flip over, causing them to have to start the process again.

But this is much better method than using a thick rope, or blowing them up with dynamite, which is what they used to do.

Satellite data

Radar satellite data is essential in understanding what these harsh environments are doing, and in spotting icebergs before they collide. In Canada, companies have developed technologies that go back twenty years into stored radar satellite data to make predictions about what’s to come.

Radar satellites have the advantage of being unaffected by weather conditions, and this is essential in the North Atlantic and Arctic. The maps these satellites create require special training to interpret. This is another area where a great deal of research is taking place. Companies are refining the algorithms that decode the information to create better, more accurate maps. 

Fixed wing

The primary ice detection tool utilized on the Grand Banks is fixed wing aircraft.  Aircraft provide the primary tactical and long range iceberg detection for the Grand Banks Operators.  Planes are equipped with anti-submarine warfare radars designed to pick up a submarine snorkel in conjunction with FLIR systems (Forward Looking InFrared).  These platforms can detect the icebergs in pack ice and also the smaller targets satellites typically miss. Aircraft reconfirm iceberg targets so that they can be tracked with time, very good for ice island fragments, in addition to providing digital photography and ice measurement using ISAR (Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar) technology.

Specialized equipment

Canada is in a unique position for developing technologies that prepare us for Arctic exploration. Oil derricks must be winterized in the North Altantic, unlike in the Gulf of Mexico where temperatures are much more favorable. We are getting better at protecting these structures from the cold wind and salty waves that batter them constantly.

Workers must also have access to emersion suits, which are like thermal life preservers. When wearing one, if a worker should fall into the icy Atlantic waters, they will survive until Search and Rescue teams can find them. Some of these suits are equipped with GPS sensors. Without this protection, a worker could die of hypothermia in three minutes.

“The general rule of thumb is if it works in the Grand Banks, it’ll work anywhere in the world because we have some of the harshest conditions,” says Stephen Green, general manager of Provincial Aerospace Ice & Environmental. “Notwithstanding the ice, the Grand Banks is harsher than the Arctic.” 

“If Canada really wants to get into the Arctic oil and gas industry, they need to look at what’s happening in Newfoundland,” says Green.