How drones, video games, and virtual reality strengthens Arctic research

Meral JamalContributor

Researchers and mentors at the first Arctic Snow School break down the role technology is playing in reaching and understanding the most remote parts of the region.

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to gathering data in the Arctic about our rapidly warming world is the sheer size of it, and — of course — the weather.

“If you go in February to Cambridge Bay and it's -45 C or -50 C and the wind is blowing — that's not for everyone,” said Daniel Kramer, a postdoctoral fellow at the Université de Sherbrooke. “One needs a certain amount of mobility and mental stability to go to the Arctic.”

Researchers there learn that conducting field work on the ground is a challenging, expensive, and increasingly rare opportunity. It’s why so many of them have to rely on technology such as satellites, drones, and remote sensors.

The Canadian Arctic, made up predominantly of the territory of Nunavut, is two million square kilometres in size but home to only roughly 30,000 people. The remote area covers one-fifth of Canada — or three times the size of the island of Newfoundland — but can still be difficult to reach.

Combined with temperatures that dip below -30 C for over six months each year, and the fact that airlines don’t travel regularly or at all to some parts of Nunavut, Kramer said the great challenge of conducting Arctic research is not only getting there but staying there long enough to conduct fieldwork.


A student researcher at the Arctic Snow School inspects snow grains during the first day of the field campaign. (Meral Jamal)

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Sharing knowledge at the Arctic Snow School

It’s something Kramer’s noticed as the research site manager for the Multidisciplinary Observatory for Arctic Climate Change at the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS). Forty students and researchers gathered there this past April to study the future of Arctic snow.

Over the course of eight days, the team went around the community of Cambridge Bay in Nunavut where CHARS is based measuring snow density and structure, and the impacts of climate change on both. The work was part of the Arctic Snow School, the first field school to focus on snow in the region.

An initiative by Sentinel North at Université Laval and the Groupe de Recherche Interdisciplinaire sur les Milieux Polaires (GRIMP) at the University of Sherbrooke, the goal was to introduce young students and researchers to fieldwork and Inuit knowledge about climate change and changing snow conditions in the Arctic.

The team learned how to use various instruments that have so far been used to study snow in other relatively warmer and more accessible conditions, such as the Alps. This included a spectrometer, which collects data about the amount and frequency of light reflected off the snow surface, as well as a radiometer that measures microwaves coming out of the snow.

But technology is expanding and may offer a way to collect comprehensive, year-round data. Then information can be supported by local knowledge and perspectives, which can strengthen understanding and responses to climate change.

“When you show someone the data and when they understand the Arctic, then it means hopefully that we are better prepared to adapt,” said Alexandre Roy, a professor in the department of Environmental Sciences at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières.

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At the end of the day, researchers with the snow school stress the importance of combining the two approaches, and how both old and new technology is helping reach the most remote parts of the Arctic and furthering our understanding of climate change in the process.


Students gather together on the last day of the field campaigns that were part of the Arctic Snow School in Cambridge Bay. They learned to use instruments such as radiometers and spectrometers. (Meral Jamal)

The history and future of remote sensing technology

While researchers are finding new ways to study the Arctic, Roy says remote sensing technology — such as the use of satellites — has been ongoing and fruitful. His work focuses on the use of remote sensing technologies to study changing snow, soil, and vegetation in Arctic communities across Nunavut and Nunavik.

“The first satellites for Earth observation that were also really satellites used to monitor what's happening on the ground in the Arctic started in the late ‘70s,” he said. “[So] we have long, temporal information on what's happening in the Arctic.”

The best example of data collected by satellites over the years, according to Roy, is that of changing sea ice in the Arctic Ocean.

“The ​​idea is to look at things we are able to see with the satellites and then we can talk about them,” Roy explained.

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At the same time, remote sensing technology such as satellites don’t capture certain information that is critical to our understanding of the region: the human and lived experience with climate change.

According to Roy, satellites at present are only able to collect scientific data, such as how much sunlight is reflected off of the surface and how much water is part of the larger Arctic snow pack.

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But all this information needs to be complemented — and is often strengthened by — local and Inuit knowledge, especially through the lived experience of those on the ground.

“I don't want to say validate but Inuit knowledge really helps us to confront our data with their perception and with their knowledge,” Roy said.

According to him, the goal is not to let technology replace local knowledge, but to put them in conversation with each other.

Drones, video games, and virtual reality

Kramer’s work also includes the use of drone technology and virtual reality to conduct research in the region.

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The use of drone technology is not new, given how large the region is and how difficult it is to access many parts of it, but it’s also an opportunity to provide local training and create citizen scientists who can collect data year-round.

“If you buy an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for $50,000, you cannot always buy 10 of them and you maybe don't want to just distribute them to anyone in the communities because it's very expensive,” Kramer said.

“But now you can buy various smaller, more economical drones and the data is usable for science. And you can either provide communities or train communities to use this technology and that brings not only opportunities to the communities, but it also brings us data.”

While drones have so far been used to collect specific data for scientific purposes, combining drone imagery with geographic data and game development software may create another opportunity: introducing researchers and people to the Arctic before they actually get there.

The future of studying the Arctic

Another challenge that makes it difficult for many researchers to conduct fieldwork in the Arctic is how expensive the journey is. For those like Kramer and Roy who are based in southern Canada, tickets to Cambridge Bay alone can cost upwards of $3,000.

Added to this is the cost of staying there and the equipment and gear needed to be out in the field.

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“The big problem in research is money is tight and going to the Arctic is expensive. So not all groups can go to the Arctic to do fieldwork and even if a research group can go to the Arctic, not everyone within that group that can go,” Kramer said.

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Kramer is currently working to create a virtual reality game that can prepare researchers and students to face safety issues when out on fieldwork. An example is how they would prepare for the threat of polar bears.

“If you look at your typical two-dimensional map, you basically see the contour lines of areas that could be tricky spots,” he said.

“But if you see a full-fledged three dimensional model in a game, or through virtual reality, you are more aware and prepared for a spot where the polar bear could walk up to you without you seeing it until the last moment.”

Even for those who aren’t Arctic researchers themselves, Kramer said using drones, 3D, and 360-degree cameras could help those in other parts of the world better understand the experience and impacts of climate change on the ground.

“You can just record videos, put them online, and then people can put on their headsets and actually see the real thing. And it's not just a model — it's a high resolution video of the area, and you can just get an impression of the landscape and how enormous it is.”

Meral Jamal was awarded the Persephone Miel Fellowship through the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting to report on the snow school in person.

Thumbnail image: Alexandre Roy with a microwave radiometer that measures the energy emitted by the surface. (Meral Jamal)