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Artificial Intelligence Used to Prevent Icebergs from Disrupting Shipping

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Experts at the University of Sheffield have developed a combination of control systems and artificial intelligence (AI) forecasting models to prevent icebergs from drifting into busy shipping regions. 

Through the use of a recently published control systems model, experts were able to predict the movement of icebergs. In 2020, between 479 and 1,015 icebergs are expected to drift into waters south of 48°, an area that sees great shipping movement between Europe and north-east North America. Last year, there were a total of 1,515 observed in that same area.

The team relied on experimental artificial intelligence analysis in order to independently support the number of icebergs predicted. They also discovered a rapid early rise in the number of icebergs present in this area during the ice season, which runs from January to September. 

The International Ice Patrol (IIP) is supplied with the findings, and they use the information to figure out the best use of resources for better ice forecasts during the season. According to the seasonal forecast, ships in the north-west Atlantic will be less likely to encounter an iceberg compared to last year.

Icebergs cause serious problems and shipping risks in the north-west Atlantic. Records show that there have been collisions and sinkings dating back to the 17th century. The IIP was established in 1912 after the sinking of the Titanic, and its job is to observe sea ice and conditions in the north-west Atlantic and warn of potential dangers.

The risk of icebergs to shipping changes each year. One year can see no icebergs crossing the area, while another year can see over 1,000. This makes it difficult to predict, but in general, there has been a higher amount detected since the 1980s. 

2020 is the first year that artificial intelligence is being used to forecast the icebergs in the area, as well as the rate of change across the season.

The model was developed by a team led by Professor Grant Bigg at the University of Sheffield, and it was funded by insurance firm AXA XL’s Ocean Risk Scholarships Programme. There is a control systems model as well as two machine learning tools that are used. 

Data related to the surface temperature of the Labrador Sea is analyzed, as well as variations in atmospheric pressure in the North Atlantic and the surface mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet.

The foundation control systems approach had an 80 percent accuracy level when tested against data on iceberg numbers for the seasons between 1997 and 2016. 

According to some of Professor Bigg’s earlier research, the variation of the number of icebergs drifting into the region was due to variable calving rates from Greenland. However, the regional climate and ocean currents are the biggest factors. Higher numbers of icebergs appear when there are colder sea surface temperatures and stronger northwesterly winds. 

Grant Brigg is a Professor of Earth System Science at the University of Sheffield.

“We have issued seasonal ice forecasts to the IIP since 2018, but this year is the first time we have combined the original control system model with two artificial intelligence approaches to specific aspects of the forecast. The agreement in all three approaches gives us the confidence to release the forecast for low iceberg numbers publicly this year—but it is worth remembering that this is just a forecast of iceberg conditions, not a guarantee, and that collisions between ships and icebergs do occur even in low ice years.”

According to Mike Hicks of the International Ice Patrol,  “The availability of a reliable prediction is very important as we consider the balance between aerial and satellite reconnaissance methods.”

Dr. John Wardman is a Senior Science Specialist in the Science and Natural Perils team at AXA XL. 

“The impact of sea level rise on coastal exposure and a potential increase in Arctic shipping activity will require a greater number and diversity of risk transfer solutions through the use of re/insurance products and other ‘soft’ mitigation strategies. The insurance industry is keeping a keen eye on the Arctic, and this model is an important tool in helping the industry identify how or when the melting Greenland Ice Sheet will directly impact the market.”