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Information and communication technologies, a tool for risk prevention and accident management on sea ice

The case of the Bay of Bothnia (Baltic Sea)
Elise Lépy
p. 255-264


Le thème de la fonte des glaces marines est un phénomène récurrent dans les discours alarmistes sur le réchauffement climatique. L’évolution positive des températures de l’air observée depuis quelques années a vraisemblablement de nombreuses répercussions sur l’environnement et plus ou moins directement sur les sociétés. Face à l’augmentation des températures, le comportement de la banquise s’exprime par une variation temporelle importante des dates d’embâcle et de débâcle. L’exposition des populations aux aléas météorologiques et glaciels peut alors constituer un risque sociétal. L’objectif de cet article est de comprendre comment les TIC s’intègrent à la problématique des risques à travers l’étude de la Baie de Botnie, à l’extrémité Nord de la Mer Baltique. L’étude s’interroge sur la façon dont la société finlandaise, en pointe dans le domaine des TIC, fait face à l’usage des nouvelles technologies dans la prévention des risques et dans la gestion des accidents en mer gelée.

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Texte intégral

This work has been done through four research stays at the department of Geography of the University of Oulu (Finland) where I was host as a PhD student. I thank personalities and official organisms that allowed me to realize it, especially Lieutenant Senior Grade Markku Kohonen from the Finnish Border Guard and the staff of the University of Oulu for their advices. The comments by three anonymous referees helped greatly in improving this paper.


1The integration of information and communication technologies (ICT) in a geographical and environmental study induces the depending question of the ICT role in sustainable development. Most of the geographical studies has dealt with social phenomena and societal impacts of ICT use and has shown that ICT is also a tool for spatializing through the manipulation of Geographic Information System (GIS). The development of new ICT has indeed involved a change in the relation space / time (Bakis, 1997) and upon the reorganization of the territory, expressed in transport, urban and rural geography.

2Thus, few studies have dealt with ICT and environment. But according to Jokinen (1998), nature is integrated to the information and communication problematique. As well as “environment” it gets appeared in scientific works of geographers and researchers in social and also environmental sciences. Thus some of recent researches have for purpose to understand the positive and negative impacts of ICT (the Internet economy, teleworking...) on the environment (ZumBrunnen, 2002) and to examine the dynamics and opportunities as well as the risks, between the information society and the environmental goals of sustainable development (Jokinen, 2000).

  • 1 Translation from a quotation written in french by Yvette Veyret in "Les risques" (2003).

3Logically a such topic ICT/environment induces to refer to the notion of “risks” as Jokinen mentionned in his article. The emergence of ICT in a society can generate some societal, industrial, economic, technological... risks. On the contrary, a hazard causing human and material damages can be managed by new technologies. In this paper the concept of risk is at the heart of the study case: it is generated by the ice development and by its vulnerability. The risk is defined by Veyret (2003) as “the perception of the danger, the possible disaster. [...] There are any risks without a population or a person who perceives and could sustain its impacts”1. The importance of damages allows the implementation of management policies by local actors as well as a prevention and protection system face to the risk.

4Publications about ICT and risks mostly concern social and economic risks (Mansell, 1999, p.35). Few of them deal with ICT and environmental risks and even less with accidents and risks on sea ice. Only reports by professionals as coast guards mention the ICT use in risk prevention and accident management.

5So it appears that the ICT use as an object of study in geography of natural risks and generally in environmental geography is almost absent. Analysing the role of ICT as a tool for risk prevention and management in the Bay of Bothnia located at the northern extremity of the Baltic Sea (figure 1), the present paper may contribute to the emergence of this new research field.

Figure 1 – The Baltic Sea area and location map

Figure 1 – The Baltic Sea area and location map

Elise Lépy


6Our purpose deals with ICT contribution for the management of environmental risks generated by climate change belonging to the seven big challenges of the sustainable development strategy of the European Union. General temperature elevation encourages to attempt managing impacts and environmental and societal risks through ICT use. It first deals with the territorial specificities and its new information technologies use. Then the inductive method for this research and data permit to specify the way that technologies serve a territory subjected seasonally to risks.

The study area

Territorial specificities – A constrained environment...

7Tangent to the arctic polar circle, the Bay of Bothnia belongs to one of the three gulfs of the Baltic Sea considered as the “Mediterranean of the North” by many authors. Situated on the West of the huge eurasian continent and under the wind of the scandinavian peninsula, the Bay of Bothnia has a continental climate with a mean annual temperature of 2,2°C (Oulu station data). During the winter time temperatures can be exceptionnally inferior to -30°C and 185 frosty days, 487 mm/year of precipitations, and 90 cm of snow thickness are recorded on average.

8Belonging to a subpolar sea, the Bay of Bothnia is subjected every winter to a bluntly change of its landscapes due to ice growth and melting processes of its marine waters. As a matter of fact, the marine ice concentration in the Bay reaches 100 % every winter, the ice pack can be thick up to one meter during strong winters and the maximum ice thickness occurs end of march (figure 2).

Figure 2 : Mean ice conditions in the Baltic sea

Figure 2 : Mean ice conditions in the Baltic sea

Elise Lépy, adapted from SMHI & Merentutkimuslaitos, 1982.

9The general evolution of air temperature observed nowadays induce important spatial and temporal variabilities of those cryomarine phenomena especially during the formation of the ice and its disappearance. It is during those two periods that the highest number of accidents is observed. The first ice appears beginning of november in the Eastern part of the Bay of Bothnia. It often exists an alternation of ice growth and melting before the ice cover gets totally formed. Thus different concentration of pack ice can represent a danger as well as channels opened by ships and ice floes moved by winds and currents. In april, the ice pack begins its melting process throught the different phases of ice concentration. The total disappearance of ice happens in may.

10The ice pack of the Bay of Bothnia is then exposed to meteorological and ice hazards and can represent a risk to the coastal population. Cryomarine phenomena such as ice growth and melting processes have an important and unavoidable influence on society. Finnish population has adapted itself to the winter roughness and has faced to what could be defined as a natural constraint. Number of activities occur on sea ice for both professional goals (winter navigation, ice fishing) than leisure (cross country, snow mobile safaris, ice kytesurfing...).

... where ICT use is important

11According to the Global competitiveness report by the World Economic Forum, Finland was ranked as the second most competitive economy including innovation in the world in 2006 (figure 3). In fact, the most quickly developing activities in nordic countries are the ICT cluster formed by information and communication sector companies (Finnfacts). In the past decade, Finland has developed”a solid reputation as a global pioneer in information society development” (Inkinen, 2003, p.250) especially with the establishment of Nokia which appears like a leader among the most world-wide telecommunication company. Besides, other Finnish companies as F-Secure have been developed and foreign companies have set up research units in Finland. Now the importance of international companies is on the rise with the establishment of Siemens, Ericsson, IBM, Hewlett Packard... (Finnfacts). Nowadays, there are about 200 telecommunication operators in Finland which the most important Telia Sonera Finland has 50% of turnover in 2004 (Ministry of Transport and Communications of Finland). “The Finnish success story is based on Finland’s innovative capacity” (Steinbock, 2006, p.34) which rests on the strategy of some companies as Nokia. Moreover, research and educational system and the industry / university cooperationis at the top of the world according to the World Economic Forum (Steinbock, 2006, p.35).

Figure 3 – International comparisons in competitiveness in 2005 and 2006 (World Economic Forum in TEKES)

Figure 3 – International comparisons in competitiveness in 2005 and 2006 (World Economic Forum in TEKES)

12In a decade, Finnish consumers have been quick to adopt new technological innovations (Inkinen, 2003) and then the majority of them belongs then to active IT users. As an example, mobile phone density and the number of Internet users are one of the world’s highest (Finnfacts) : in 2005, 103% of subscriptions to cellular mobile phones had been registered in Finland and 71% of the Finnish population had used Internet, on average once a week in 2006 (45% for the European population) (Eurostat).

13In conclusion distances and geographical isolation of a part of the Finnish population as well as natural constraints (roughness of the winter…) have allowed as a first step the emergence and the development of ICT. This phenomena of substitution of distances has been replaced step by step by a phenomena of complementarity of new technologies. The innovation need by Finnish population has modified the relation between ICT and territories which are considered as a resource and not as a constraint (Bakis, Vidal, 2007, p.107). New technologies have so an imminent place within everyday life of Nordic population offering convenient and interactive services.

14Seasonal processes of ice growth and melting represent one of the particularities of the Bay of Bothnia and can generate difficult situations of risks. After taking into account the significant usage of new technologies in Finland, it seems necessary to focus now on the role of those new technologies in risk prevention and accident management in Bothnian Bay ice.

Methodology and data

15The inductive method is used in this research. The case of study helps to extend results to the nearby sea ice or more generally to the Baltic Sea ice. For this study, both qualitative and quantitative data have been collected and analysed in order to show up the role of ICT in risk prevention and accident management on sea ice.

16Qualitative data are based on inquiries conducted with professionals working in relation with the sea. Thus the contribution of Finnish Coast Guard has been helpful since it has for responsibility to assist vessels and boats in distress, to prevent disasters and to search missing people. Virpiniemi Coast Guard which depends on the maritime rescue coordination center MRCC of Turku is in charge of search and rescue management in the Bay of Bothnia.

17Inquiries have been also conducted with two other professions : professional fishermen of Haukipudas and captains of icebreakers Tuura and Sisu. At the time, it was necessary to get information from most of the “users” of the sea ice, ie those who practice any kind of leisure activities as kytesurfers, skiiers, snowmobile drivers ...

18Reports and observations made by coast guards have been required as well.

19Quantitative data are based on statistics reported by the Finnish Border Guard. The analysis concerns incidents and accidents occured on a 15-year-period of time (1990-2005). It is precised what kind of technologies was used to prevent risks and also to call for help in the case of an accident.

The role of ICT in risk prevention and accident management in sea ice

20In the Bay of Bothnia, incidents and accidents occuring on sea ice represent about one third of accidents registered during a full year. Sea ice engenders in winter the “continentalisation” of the marine area leading to the spatial extension of human activities. Indeed cars can reach islands driving on ice roads equiped by signs, the amount of racing raids with snowmobiles increases, the cross country is quite common on sea ice as well as hiking and ice fishing. As for winter navigation which has an essential role for the finnish economy, it has made possible through the icebreaker assistance to ships.

21Spatial and temporal variability of ice growth and melting due to the general temperature evolution observed in the Bay of Bothnia can have the effect of misleading people over a late ice growth or an earlier ice melting. This variability often has for consequence an amount of incidents and accidents on sea ice. Meteorological and hydrological hazards induced by climate change cause environmental and societal risks.

Risk prevention

22The Coast Guard station has for tasks the border control on sea areas and it is also in charge of the maritime rescue services. Search and rescue are then an important aim of the Coast Guard activities. In a such context, it has a role to inform the population about any kind of risks it is possible to be occurred on sea ice.

23The risk observation lies in two kinds of devices. The Coast Guard gets informed about risk conditions by checking by itself different sea areas. According to the period of the season, the Coast Guard make patrols using the hovercraft which can be used on both ice and open water, a snowmobile or even a car. Then it collects more information from the Ice Service of the Finnish Institute of Marine Research (FIMR) which provides daily ice charts created from satellite images.

24According to the observations made, the Coast Guard needs to inform and communicate the population about risks and dangers incurred at some places. It punctually gives information to newspaper radio, television and Internet. It also educates the population about risks on sea ice. In that case the population adherence is quite important. Schools are really concerned by information campaigns conducted by the Coast Guard.

25The risk prevention is made up as well of advices before going to the sea ice. A GPS (Global Positioning System), emergency call equipment which mostly concerns mobilephones nowadays and fire equipment are recommended in the case of a trip on sea ice. Besides IT equipement, it is necessary to get a compass, marine chart and rocket distress.

26In spite of information and communication of risks, accidents happen every winter in the Bay of Bothnia: snowmobiles stuck into the floating ice of a fairway, people lost on an ice floe … (figures 4 and 5).

Figure 4 – Case of incidents on sea ice (Finnish Border Guard)

Figure 4 – Case of incidents on sea ice (Finnish Border Guard)

Figure 5 – Case of incidents on sea ice (Finnish Border Guard)

Figure 5 – Case of incidents on sea ice (Finnish Border Guard)

Accident intervention and management

27To call for help – Qualitative data collected from Virpiniemi Coast Guard has revealed that according to the distress situation it is more efficient to use at first older methods to prevent an accident. To send red rockets or make a fire can avoid dramatic situations as a cargo ship passing near a group of persons. It uses also to be seen and located in the case someone is lost or a snowmobile broken. Then to call for help through communication technologies is necessary.

28Statistics collected about sea accident has permitted to establish the frequency of technologies used by persons involved in an accident on sea ice. The study concerns winters (from november 1st to april 30th) of the period 1990-2005. It appears (figure 5) that the phone has always been used to call for rescue as radio VHF (Very High Frequency) which is more used by sailors calling through channels 16 and 70, marine band VHF and international distress channels. In the early 1990’s, the Nordic Mobile Telephone (NMT), first fully- automatic cellular phone system in Fennoscandinavia was used to make an alert until mid 1990’s. At the end of the 1990’s, the Global System for Mobile communications (GSM), the most popular standard for mobile phones, arrived and started to be used, mainly by persons in snowmobile as a way to call for help. The advantage of this technology in case of emergency is that the rescue can get the location of the mobile phone estimating the distance from it to the nearest radio mast. Those last years, the use of satellite technologies has begun to interest sailors. Cospas-Sarsat is an international satellite system for search and rescue which provides accurate and reliable alert and location data through distress radiobeacons transmitting signals during distress situations to satellites. Ground stations receive detected signals and send information to search and rescue centers.

29Despite of the technology evolution, older methods to prevent about an accident are still used as red rockets, fire... Its uses through its observation have permitted to rescue a lot of people.

Figure 6 – Technologies used to call for help by persons involved in an accident on sea ice in Eastern Bothnian Bay

Figure 6 – Technologies used to call for help by persons involved in an accident on sea ice in Eastern Bothnian Bay

Period and percentage of ICT use for the winter period November 1st – April 30th from 1990 to 2005.

Sources : Virpiniemi Coast Guard.

30Those last winters, a decreasing amount of search and rescue operations has been observed by Virpiniemi Coast Guard.The increasing use of mobile phones since 2000 could be one of the reasons. Indeed, it allows to call easily friends and relatives to get some help.

31Search and rescue management – Search and rescue operations in Oulu area are conducted by a cooperation system gathering the MRCC of Turku, the subcenter of Vaasa and Virpiniemi station, each with a different role. In order to communicate between each other, the radiocommunication system is composed by three technologies.

32VHF and MF (medium frequency) radios are mostly used by maritime authorities. In a vessel assistance, the international Automatic Identification System (AIS) permit the authorities to identify and locate ships in distress and to exchange messages through VHF. Recently, Finnish government has established a specific telecommunication network for Finnish authorities called Virve (Viranomaisverkko). This technology was developed by Nokia and allows the coast guard to get into contact with any authority organization as the fire brigade, police… In many rescue operations, this new technology is used. Depending on the search and rescue operation, the technology by satellite is prefered by the Coast Guard. Inmarsat (International maritime satellite organization) technology provides global distress and safety services to the maritime community.

33ICT innovation has an important positive effect on search and rescue management improving speed and reactivity of maritime authority.


34Spatial and temporal variability during the formation of the pack ice and its disappearance, amplified by the effects of the general evolution of temperature on its environment is partly responsible of risks incurred in the Bay of Bothnia. This paper had the objectives to show the ICT integration as a tool for risk prevention and accident management.

35The ICT use especially the one of cellular phones allows incident reduction on sea ice and a better reactivity from the coast guards. The number of coast guard interventions has significantly been reduced since people use cellular phone to call for help from friends. Nevertheless it appears sometimes that using practical methods as light up a fire is more efficient.

36Intensive use of mobile phones and improvement of satellite technologies could strongly reduce the amount of rescue operations on sea ice. This article contributes to the question of innovation in geography of environment and sustainable development.

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1 Translation from a quotation written in french by Yvette Veyret in "Les risques" (2003).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1 – The Baltic Sea area and location map
Crédits Elise Lépy
Fichier image/jpeg, 80k
Titre Figure 2 : Mean ice conditions in the Baltic sea
Légende Elise Lépy, adapted from SMHI & Merentutkimuslaitos, 1982.
Fichier image/jpeg, 88k
Titre Figure 3 – International comparisons in competitiveness in 2005 and 2006 (World Economic Forum in TEKES)
Fichier image/jpeg, 88k
Titre Figure 4 – Case of incidents on sea ice (Finnish Border Guard)
Fichier image/png, 78k
Titre Figure 5 – Case of incidents on sea ice (Finnish Border Guard)
Fichier image/png, 132k
Titre Figure 6 – Technologies used to call for help by persons involved in an accident on sea ice in Eastern Bothnian Bay
Légende Period and percentage of ICT use for the winter period November 1st – April 30th from 1990 to 2005.
Crédits Sources : Virpiniemi Coast Guard.
Fichier image/jpeg, 116k
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