State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Explore the Arctic Ocean With ‘IceTracker’

pfirman icetrackerBy Stephanie Pfirman

This week, we are launching a test of “IceTracker”—a tool that allows users to see the trajectories of Arctic sea ice forward or backward from any day between 1981 and 2012, as well as other data including sea-ice speed, air temperature, water depth and the age of the sea ice along the track. We think IceTracker will be useful not only for Arctic research and policy, but for bringing the Arctic sea ice alive for students and the general public.

Researchers interested in climate and arctic dynamics will be able to assess the origin and melt location of sea ice, and seasonal and year-to-year variations in drift trajectories from specific locations. They will also be able to look into the transport of sediment or contaminants on or in the ice; this might for instance shed light on potential trajectories of oil spilled in ice-covered waters, or habitat changes that might affect the foraging patterns of polar bears or other creatures.

The IceTracker might eventually be used to consider future management options in the Arctic. Among these: projecting where declining sea ice is likely to persist, providing future potential refuge for threatened arctic creatures (an idea that got a lot of attention at AGU in 2010). It can even be used to recreate historical events; we used it to figure out where Fridtjof Nansen and his crew would have drifted had they frozen their ship into the ice today, rather than during their famous 1893-1896 trans-Arctic drift.

IceTracker is an excellent inquiry-driven research environment for any student with access to a computer. Teachers can use the IceTracker in guided exercises, or let students work on their own to learn about ice dynamics, interannual variability and climate change. For instance, we have set up team competitions where students can vie to be the first to reach the North Pole by drifting with the ice, or to make it out alive through Fram Strait. By exploring the Arctic in this way, the IceTracker lets students do their own sampling of a real-world non-linear system. They can see how diminished ice cover has changed ice speed, and demonstrate for themselves how initial conditions can affect ice movements much farther down the line.

Others might use IceTracker to consider historical conditions in planning adventure expeditions, or to visualize changing conditions for Arctic wildlife.

We will present IceTracker at AGU on Friday, Dec. 13, at the Moscone South poster hall (look for abstract number C15A-0490). You can also try running trajectories yourself at our beta testing web site: We would appreciate ideas on how to make it better. Send feedback to:

The project has received funding from the U.S. Office of Naval Research and the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Some further resources:

Fowler, C. and M. Tschudi. 2003. Polar Pathfinder Daily 25 km EASE-Grid Sea Ice Motion

Vectors. Boulder, Colorado USA: NASA DAAC at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Pfirman, S., G.G.Campbell,B. Tremblay, R. Newton, W. Meier. New IceTracker Tool Depicts Forward and Backward Arctic Sea Ice Trajectories AGU San Francisco, December 2013. C51A-0490.

Pfirman, S., C. Fowler, B. Tremblay, R. Newton, 2009a. The Last Arctic Sea Ice Refuge. The Circle, 4:6-8.

Pfirman, S., B. Tremblay, C. Fowler, 2009b. Going with the Floe: An analysis of the epic expeditions of Fridtjof Nansen and Sir Ernest Shackleton. American Scientist, 97: 484-493.

Stephanie Pfirman is Hirschorn professor of environmental science at Barnard College, and an adjunct senior scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

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